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News this winter that 112 women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan reported having been sexually assaulted by fellow U.S. soldiers in the last 18 months shocked the public and shamed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld into appointing a task force to investigate the matter. The task force, headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Ellen Embrey, is due to present its findings to Rumsfeld on April 30. The team is highly regarded, and victim advocates say they have faith in members' commitment to the job. The question is: Will anyone listen to what they have to say?
The answer is a disappointing "probably not." Sex scandals have rocked the military with dismaying regularity in the last 13 years; in 1991, when dozens of women in uniform were harassed and some sexually assaulted at the Navy's Tailhook Association convention; in 1993, when reports of rape first emerged at the Air Force Academy; in 1994, when the General Accounting Office found widespread harassment of female cadets at West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy; in 1997, when drill sergeants at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland were accused of raping and assaulting dozens of female recruits; in 2003, with fresh allegations of rape and coercion at the Air Force Academy.
Each of these eruptions has provoked an outraged response, a commission, a task force, a report. Christine Hansen, executive director of the Miles Foundation, which provides services to victims of violence associated with the armed services, counts 20 in the last 17 years.
"In all of these recommendations, we have seen very few of them implemented," Hansen says. "Our concern is, at what priority level is this?"
In the five months since the Denver Post published a damning article about incidents of rape in Central Command -- which includes the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Asia, and therefore Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait -- the military's official response has been swift, decisive and proactive, but its response at the ground level has been lackluster. The Army said in February it had already started doing quarterly reviews of sexual assault cases. The Marines said that starting March 1 it would incorporate sexual harassment training into its programs. Rumsfeld formed the task force. Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness David Chu whipped out a survey showing that assaults in the military were down by half since 1995 (although news organizations pointed out that the margin of error nearly cancelled out that progress).
But as recently as this week, when asked to provide updated figures on attacks, spokespersons for the Army, the Marines and the Air Force were unable to do so. Nor were they able to give the status of investigations into sexual assault charges. The issue is probably not that the public affairs people aren't doing their jobs but rather that no one is tracking the numbers. No one is paying attention -- still.
Asked if the spotlight of the media had sped up the pace of investigations, Hansen answered, "Not to the best of our knowledge."
The exception is the Navy, which in 1990 formed the Sexual Assault Victim Intervention program, a two-pronged approach that combines training on sexual misconduct with a strong victim response component. SAVI has an office and a staff, so the Navy was able to report that from October 2002 until February 2004 there were 12 reported assault cases in Central Command, seven of which were closed, and 358 Navy-wide.
Meaningful numbers are difficult to pin down. Hansen's Miles Foundation has received 129 reports of rape or attempted rape of servicewomen in Central Command since October 2002, with only 27 of those having been reported to military authorities. But the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence estimates that only 16 percent of all rapes are ever reported. Extrapolating from that basis, then, the numbers get big, fast.
In real life these cases are not, of course, numbers. They are harrowing tales. Alternet was not able to speak with any of the victims, but their stories emerged in congressional testimonies and news reports.
One woman, a major in the Army Reserves, was assaulted in Iraq by a noncommissioned officer during a SCUD missile alert, after which medics handed her "a lot of pills to take" for emergency contraception. Although her examination verified that she had been penetrated, the assailant's DNA evidence was not available and her case was closed.
Another woman, an Army sergeant, says she was raped in Afghanistan by a soldier with the U.S.-led coalition. There was no privacy for a sexual assault exam, and clinic staffers gave her antibiotics instead of emergency contraception, but she was sent back into action and then pulled off duty when her supervisor started to worry that she would "lose it." Fellow soldiers accused her of trumping up the rape charges.
Another female soldier in Kuwait was hit in the back of the head while entering the latrine and awoke as her assailant was raping her after having tied her hands and cut off her clothes with a knife, slicing her in the process.
All the victims said they felt betrayed by the authorities' response, from inept handling by medics to insensitive suggestions of having invited assault, and some said they would not report rape if it happened again. That, in fact, is at the heart of the task force's mission: to find out what services are available to victims of rape in the military. It is also charged with ascertaining the barriers to reporting sexual assault.
Victim advocates say one of the chief barriers is the military's lack of confidentiality. Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network, says this is the worst thing possible for rape victims.
"The FBI ranks rape as the second most violent crime, trailing only murder. In other words, it is the most violent and traumatic crime a victim lives to remember," Berkowitz told the Congressional Women's Caucus in March, adding that it carries the risk of depression, addiction and shame. "Now, add to this mix the fact that reporting will mean everyone knows -- and I do mean everyone, from your superiors to your bunkmates," Berkowitz said.
Berkowitz blames this more on clumsiness than callousness. "Out of prior scandals, where the military was charged with not investigating cases, the policy became when a charge is leveled, it immediately goes up the chain of command, and 12 to 15 people are immediately notified," Berkowitz told Alternet. "And like any small community, once 15 people know, everybody knows. It's well-intentioned, but it had the opposite effect."
Another barrier to reporting is that it seems pointless. Assailants are transferred (or sometimes the victim is, in what feels like retaliation), docked pay or discharged, but rarely court-martialed or incarcerated.
"Predominantly the cases are handled through an administrative as opposed to a judicial process," Hansen says. "A commander has at their discretion from zero to court martial, if you will. Oftentimes we find they choose administrative action."
"Commander discretion" is enshrined in the Uniform Code of Military Justice and vigorously defended by military leaders as a way to protect the investment represented by a soldier; leniency is endorsed essentially for assailants who are regarded as good soldiers. A 2001 panel that assessed the UCMJ on its 50th anniversary recommended curtailing some of that discretion, but military and civilian defense officials resist the idea.
In any case, overhauling the UCMJ is beyond the scope of Embrey's task force, and Berkowitz says that for now, perhaps that's a good thing.
"It's probably good that the focus is a little narrower -- it might increase the odds that the recommendations actually get implemented," he said. "An overhaul [of the UCMJ] would be ideal, but with an incrementalist approach at least some change will begin to happen. Then we can go back and work on the next piece."
Hansen and Berkowitz, both of whom testified at a Congressional Women's Caucus hearing on March 31, have different ideas about how to fix the problem of victim response once the task force returns from visiting installations in Central Command to present its report.
Hansen suggests creating an Office of the Victim Advocate that would be housed within the Defense Secretary's office. It would set up victim services, help victims navigate the military bureaucracy, standardize the response to sexual assaults and in general serve as a clearinghouse for sexual assault issues. It would also establish a "privacy privilege" for victims -- one place it might run into resistance from military officials wary of setting a precedent to cut commanders out of the loop. Hansen has asked for $10 million to fund it next year.
Berkowitz says the military branches might rail against "another dictate from Washington," so he favors setting up a network of nonprofits like RAINN around military bases that can serve as victim advocates and give them an alternative to the chain-of-command reporting scenario.
"The second thing is we have to change incentives. When there's no punishment for a crime there will be a lot of it," he says.
One thing that needs to happen, Berkowitz says, is for the military to stop lumping sexual assault in with "sexual misconduct" -- a wide-ranging designation that includes everything from inappropriate comments to rape. Again, Berkowitz invokes the FBI's ranking of rape just behind murder as the most violent crime.
"If military folks were seeing rape as something close to murder rather than as something close to a crude joke or a pinch," he says, "it would be taken more seriously."
Traci Hukill is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.