Military unjust toward sexual harassment victims

 

By Allison Weintraub

“Women serving in the U.S. military today are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq,” said Congresswoman Jane Harman in front of the 2008 House panel investigating military procedures on reports of sexual assault. A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) found 52 women in the military are raped every day. In 2010, “nearly 50,000 male veterans [were] screened positive for ‘military sexual trauma’ at the Department of Veterans Affairs” according to an April 2011 Newsweek article. Although DoD officials have taken steps in recent years to curb sexual harassment and assault in the military, the number of abuses reported annually remains at an intolerably high level.

In Feb. 2011, 17 former and current service members filed a lawsuit for the failure of the DoD to adequately protect sexual assault victims and convict perpetrators. “The policies that are put in place are extremely ineffectual,” said Myla Haider, a plaintiff in the suit who was raped in 2002 while interning with the military’s Criminal Investigative Command. “There was severe maltreatment in these cases, and there was no accountability whatsoever. And soldiers in general who make any type of complaint in the military are subject to retaliation and have no means of defending themselves.”

Haider did not initially report the crime because she “did not believe she would be able to obtain justice.” Haider’s situation is not uncommon; sexual crimes committed in the military frequently go unreported. The Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office approximated that in 2010, only “14 percent of the estimated incidents of unwanted sexual contact were reported to a military authority.” Once a crime is reported, commanders are responsible for ensuring victims receive proper care and for holding culprits accountable. Some victims keep silent because they fear humiliation, or worse — another assault that could likely follow a report.

A U.S. Government Accountability Office study released in Oct. 2011 found a number of victims chose not to report an incident because they believed “the incident was not sufficiently serious to report or that the incident would not be taken seriously if reported.” In reality, approximately one in five reported cases go to trial and only about half of the prosecutions result in convictions. According to a recent New York Times editorial, perpetrators go unprosecuted for a variety of reasons, including “decisions by commanding officers not to prosecute or to impose nonjudicial or administrative punishments.” Furthermore, “About six percent of the accused were discharged or allowed to ‘resign in lieu of court-martial’ — quit their jobs.”

DoD representatives affirm repeatedly they have a zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy, but their affirmations may not be enough to make real strides in preventing sexual assault crimes from occurring. Existing sexual harassment training at the military academies relies heavily on cadets and midshipmen instead of trained professionals. While the training and prevention programs may look adequate on paper, they have evidently proven to be ineffective in practice.

A disheartening effect of sexual harassment in the military is the amount of victims who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Women veterans are more likely to seek help for PTSD not from combat-related trauma, but from the sexual assault perpetrated by their fellow soldiers. A 2004 study found 71 percent of military women seeking treatment for PTSD were victims of sexual assault or rape while on duty.

As DoD officials continue to reform their policies, it is imperative the treatment of sexual harassment victims in the military remains a top priority for U.S. military and political leaders and offenders are punished to the fullest extent of law. “What’s at stake here goes to the very core of the values of the military and the nation itself,” said Rep. John Tierney, the chairman of the 2008 House panel. “When our sons and daughters put their lives on the line to defend the rest of us, the last thing they should fear is being attacked by one of our own.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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