For Military Sexual-Assault Survivors, Proposed Reforms Are Only a Start

Gillibrand: A "safe" no vote.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
Aug. 11, 2013, 8 a.m.

Bri­an Lewis was a de­term­ined 20-year-old petty of­ficer, en­vi­sion­ing a long ca­reer of ser­vice after three years in the Navy. But that was be­fore he was raped.

In Au­gust 2000, after be­ing as­signed as a fire-con­trol tech­ni­cian aboard the USS Frank Cable, a sub­mar­ine tender out of Guam, a su­per­i­or offered to provide ca­reer guid­ance over din­ner. Later that night, in a re­mote area near some com­mer­cial fish­ing docks, the su­per­i­or at­tacked the young petty of­ficer, ir­re­voc­ably chan­ging his life.

“After that, my chain of com­mand ordered me not to re­port it to Nav­al Crim­in­al In­vest­ig­at­ive Ser­vice,” Lewis told Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily. “That’s what hap­pens in our mil­it­ary justice sys­tem. I can­not in good con­science tell a ser­vice mem­ber that re­port­ing to their chain of com­mand is in their best in­terest.”

As of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton grapple with re­forms to the mil­it­ary justice sys­tem, among those watch­ing with sharp in­terest may be thou­sands of vic­tims. An an es­tim­ated 26,000 cases of un­wanted sexu­al con­tact oc­curred in the armed ser­vices in fisc­al 2012, ac­cord­ing to the De­fense De­part­ment. Al­though most of the mil­it­ary health ser­vices offered to deal with it cater to wo­men, more than half of the vic­tims are ac­tu­ally men.

The mil­it­ary says it is mak­ing changes, and law­makers on Cap­it­ol Hill have com­mit­ted to put­ting some re­forms in place this year. But many vic­tims and their ad­vocacy or­gan­iz­a­tions in­sist that what’s be­ing dis­cussed is nowhere near ad­equate to elim­in­ate the con­flicts of in­terest in the mil­it­ary justice sys­tem or to curb a cul­ture that of­ten blames vic­tims when in­cid­ents oc­cur.

“A lot of em­phas­is is now be­ing placed on pro­tect­ing vic­tims from re­tali­ation after they come for­ward,” Lewis said. “All of the pro­pos­als fail to ad­dress what hap­pens to the vic­tim be­fore that.”

Sur­viv­ors of sexu­al as­sault ar­gue it is prac­tic­ally im­possible to seek med­ic­al or leg­al as­sist­ance in private, that the only way to get help and try to seek justice is to go through su­per­i­ors.

But com­mand­ers have broad lee­way over how to handle such situ­ations.

In the mil­it­ary justice sys­tem, the chain of com­mand de­cides what to do with al­leg­a­tions of sexu­al mis­con­duct, in­clud­ing wheth­er to pro­sec­ute cases or throw them out without fur­ther in­vest­ig­a­tion. What hap­pens in the chain also re­flects on the com­mand­er, so crit­ics ar­gue it can be in com­mand­ers’ in­terest not to ac­know­ledge prob­lems in their ranks.

On the Hill, dozens of law­makers, led by Sen. Kirsten Gil­librand, D-N.Y., in the Sen­ate, and Rep. Dan Ben­ishek, R-Mich., in the House, are fight­ing a tough battle to change that. They are push­ing le­gis­la­tion — op­posed by both the Pentagon and Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee lead­ers — that would take the de­cision to pro­sec­ute out of the chain of com­mand but leave it with­in the mil­it­ary. However, even the staunchest ad­voc­ates of this bill say that this is not enough.

Paula Cough­lin, who brought the prob­lem of sexu­al as­sault in the mil­it­ary in­to the pub­lic eye after her as­sault at the Tail­hook con­ven­tion of avi­at­ors in 1991, said she does not know that any bill pro­posed in Con­gress could have pre­ven­ted her at­tack. But she ar­gues that re­forms like Gil­librand’s would have en­sured at least a great­er at­tempt at justice, and this might change be­ha­vi­or.

“I don’t know if one of those bills would have pre­ven­ted my at­tack,” she said. “But I feel cer­tain that the way I was mis­treated by the mil­it­ary justice sys­tem, and most im­port­antly by my chain of com­mand, that it would have been dif­fer­ent if there had been a law that said you have to handle every sexu­al-as­sault com­plaint im­me­di­ately and hand it over to a third-party in­vest­ig­at­ing unit.”

Lewis said that his com­mand­ers’ lack of in­terest in his case — there was nev­er an in­vest­ig­a­tion or pro­sec­u­tion — be­came un­bear­able. Mean­while, he found out that his at­tack­er had raped at least one oth­er per­son be­fore him, and he felt vul­ner­able in the ship’s close quar­ters. “There are only so many places to hide on a 600-foot-long gray floaty thingy,” Lewis said.

Lewis was me­de­vaced to a Navy med­ic­al fa­cil­ity in San Diego. Rather than the Navy treat­ing his at­tack like a crime, in­vest­ig­at­ing it, pro­sec­ut­ing it, and provid­ing him with ap­pro­pri­ate treat­ment and sup­port, Lewis says he was dia­gnosed with a per­son­al­ity dis­order and dis­charged. It left him with what he con­siders a shame­ful and un­fair black mark on his re­cord that haunts him pro­fes­sion­ally. The Navy de­clined to dis­cuss Lewis’s situ­ation cit­ing pri­vacy reas­ons.

Lewis has re­fo­cused his ca­reer to try to bring about justice for mil­it­ary sexu­al-as­sault sur­viv­ors. He is in the pro­cess of set­ting up the first non­profit ad­vocacy or­gan­iz­a­tion for male vic­tims, called Men Re­cov­er­ing From Mil­it­ary Sexu­al Trauma, and he hopes to even­tu­ally be­come a law­yer to ad­voc­ate for those un­fairly dis­charged. He also serves on the ad­vocacy board for Pro­tect Our De­fend­ers, an non­profit ad­vocacy or­gan­iz­a­tion for mil­it­ary sexu­al-as­sault vic­tims.

This spring, Lewis be­came the first male sur­viv­or of sexu­al as­sault to testi­fy be­fore Con­gress, and he says a full palette of re­forms are needed.

Be­sides the Gil­librand-Ben­ishek bill, he sup­ports a pro­vi­sion in both the House and Sen­ate de­fense bills that would provide a spe­cially trained coun­sel to provide leg­al ad­vice to vic­tims.

Lewis is also strongly ad­voc­at­ing for a bill by Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., that would re­view the cases of more than 31,000 vet­er­ans who were dia­gnosed with a per­son­al­ity dis­order and dis­charged. An­oth­er bill he fa­vors from Rep. Jack­ie Spei­er, D-Cal­if., would take the sys­tem for re­port­ing mil­it­ary sexu­al as­saults out of the chain of com­mand en­tirely.

He is also call­ing for the mil­it­ary to provide ser­vices for male vic­tims of sexu­al as­sault. “The mil­it­ary will have to de­vel­op pro­grams to ac­com­mod­ate male sur­viv­ors. One of the reas­ons male sur­viv­ors do not come for­ward is the lack of ser­vices,” he said.

Yet, while Lewis ar­gues that the re­forms he sup­ports would have helped his situ­ation, he ac­know­ledges they might not have pre­ven­ted the at­tack. He ar­gues that the mil­it­ary has to go much fur­ther to change be­ha­vi­or.

“Really it’s a cul­ture change that is needed where we stop blam­ing the vic­tim,” Lewis said.

One com­mon cri­ti­cism is that the mil­it­ary hangs posters on bases warn­ing against drink­ing too much or walk­ing home alone, when vic­tims ar­gue that the as­saults are of­ten about con­trol and ab­use of power, rather than neg­li­gence on the vic­tim’s part.

Cough­lin, who is also on the ad­vocacy board of Pro­tect Our De­fend­ers, said she has heard the Pentagon say for dec­ades that it is go­ing to take the prob­lem ser­i­ously. But as­saults have stead­ily in­creased.

“I have been wait­ing 20 years, and they really haven’t made any con­crete change,” she said. “You can’t train a rap­ist to not be a rap­ist, and you can’t train a group of mil­it­ary people to be­have bet­ter than what they were modeled. But you can change the way those com­plaints are handled in the hopes that it re­sets the stand­ard for be­ha­vi­or.”

As Lewis put it, “Our uni­forms did not cause us to be raped; our looks didn’t cause us to be raped. The rap­ist caused us to be raped.”

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