That system is inherently unjust, says Nancy Parrish, director of Protect Our Defenders, a group that advocates on behalf of military sexual-assault victims. She points out that of the 3,122 reports of rape and sexual assault in the ranks in 2010, only 240 cases eventually led to trials and only 191 perpetrators were convicted by court-martial. “Often the sexual predator is a friend, drinking buddy, or favored subordinate of the commander, who simply cannot accept the idea that this person might be guilty of such a crime,” Parrish says.
After her group presented a petition with more than 20,000 signatures to the House Armed Services Committee, Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., announced on Wednesday that the panel will hold open hearings on Lackland. The Pentagon’s Workplace and Gender Relations Survey says that 39 percent of victims report that their attackers were of higher rank and 23 percent report that the perpetrators were in their direct chain of command. The military system cannot let local commanders have their way, Parrish says, adding that “so-called reforms are designed to give a perception of legitimacy to a system that has none.”
REFORM OR ELSE
It may be too early to say that for sure. The Pentagon has implemented substantial changes in the last year: Cases of rape and sexual assault have been elevated to a special court-martial headed at least by a colonel or a Navy captain, raising the rank of the presiding officer and taking responsibility away from the lower command rungs. Victims can already report assaults anonymously to a Sexual Assault Prevention Coordinator in every command, but a new “expedited transfer” policy will allow victims who file open reports of sexual assault to request an immediate transfer from their unit or base. The Pentagon plans to create special-victim’s units in each armed service, with investigators and prosecutors specially trained to deal with sexual-assault cases.
Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, the director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, argues that these reforms will make commands more responsive to sexual-assault cases and ensure that investigations are more independent. “In the first hours and days after a reported assault, commands need to take care of the victims and be responsive to their charges, creating a climate where other victims will feel safe coming forward and sending a message to potential predators that these crimes will be investigated thoroughly and those found guilty will be punished,” he says. He disputes the notion that military culture enables sexual predators. “From the first day we lace on the boots, we adopt a warrior ethos of teamwork, unit cohesion, and taking care of our battle buddy, wingman, or shipmate. And sexual assault is an affront to all of those core values.”
Senior uniformed leaders reject calls for an independent, civilian agency within the Defense Department to handle sexual-assault cases. The whole point of a Uniformed Code of Military Justice, they say, is to give commanders specially tailored tools and norms to ensure the fitness of their units. “To remove the disciplinary tool from [the chain of command] in sexual-assault cases would be to handicap their ability to enforce standards,” Patton says of commanders. “The chain of command owns the problem of sexual assaults, and the only way to address them is to get the chain of command to fix it.” Maj. Gen. Leonard Patrick, the Second Air Force commander in charge of training at Lackland, echoes the point: “Without aggressive chain-of-command follow-up, we would only have convicted Walker,” the first trainer accused. “None of these victims and witnesses came forward on their own until investigators reached out [and] determined to see how deep this problem runs.”
But it’s not just victims’ advocates who remain unconvinced that the Pentagon’s reforms will solve a problem this pervasive and persistent. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., a member of the Armed Services Committee, has taken to the House floor 23 times to read the stories of victims into the Congressional Record. She has introduced a bill that would hand responsibility for sexual-assault cases to an independent civilian agency within the Defense Department.
The problem of sexual predators in the military has festered for 25 years, Speier says, and even though Congress holds hearings about each scandal, it always moves on to other issues. “The Pentagon responds much like the Catholic Church—moving people around like shuffling cards in a deck and tinkering at the edges with so-called reforms,” she says. More people should be bothered, she argues, by the fact that only 14 percent of victims report these crimes. “We should be troubled that when victims are deposed, they are asked about their sexual histories, as if that were relevant to being raped, and that there are no sentencing guidelines for military juries in sexual-assault and rape cases, where the predators often get slapped with 30 days in jail or demotion in rank, and then it’s business as usual.” For that reason, Speier points out, Australia, Canada, and Great Britain have removed these cases from the military chain of command.
The U.S. armed forces have always been a microcosm of American society, reflecting its strengths and often magnifying its weaknesses. The military struggled with racism in the ranks in the 1960s and 1970s; with an epidemic of drugs and drunk driving in the 1970s and 1980s; with integration of gay and lesbian service members in the 1990s and 2000s. When the services have decided enough is enough, they have solved social issues that have bedeviled the civilian world. In other cases, the military has been dragged along, such as when Congress interceded against Pentagon protests with the landmark Goldwater-Nichols reforms in 1986 to end dysfunctional service rivalries. That history suggests that the Defense Department could indeed deal with sexual predators on its terms and truly demonstrate zero tolerance of sexual predators who betray the military’s own values. Otherwise, the Pentagon should be prepared to stand down, and let others lead the way.
This article appears in the Sep. 15, 2012, edition of National Journal.