Pentagon policy on sexual assault not enough
Today's women in the military fly combat missions, serve on submarines and work in war zones. More than a quarter million have served overseas to support the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan ― and 144 of them have died in the line of duty.
But despite the evolution of women's military roles, some constants remain: When a woman in the armed forces reports a sexual assault, she might face the same indifference, ridicule and even retaliation that military women have suffered for years.
In a federal lawsuit filed last month against Pentagon officials, two former Marine officers said they were harassed and taunted with slurs after reporting rapes to military police and superiors. In some cases, women were discouraged from reporting the crimes to police. More broadly, cases that are investigated can then be dropped by low-level commanders ― the first to decide whether an allegation moves forward ― sometimes for as flimsy an excuse as the suspect is "a good soldier."
Last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta admitted as much when he announced a change in the way cases will be handled. "At the local unit level sometimes these matters are put aside," he said. "They're not followed up with." To prevent that, serious sexual assault allegations will be pushed up the chain of command to senior officers — Navy captains, colonels in the other services ― who will make the decisions.
The change, along with Panetta's proposal for a special victims unit to handle sexual assaults, might help. Even so, a flawed system won't be fixed by fiddling around the edges.
Last year alone, according to a Defense Department report released this month, nearly 3,200 servicemembers reported sexual assaults ― up 34 percent since 2005. More than 200 of the reports originated in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It's unclear whether the increase reflects more incidents or greater willingness of servicemembers to file reports. Rape, in both the military and civilian world, is notoriously underreported and often difficult to assess, particularly if the assailant and victim know each other and the case boils down to he said/she said.
But the civilian world has found better ways to deal with those issues. Civilians report sexual assaults to police without fear that their bosses or colleagues will find out. Independent prosecutors ― who know neither the woman nor the accused ― decide whether they'll pursue charges.
In the military, commanders ― not professional military prosecutors ― decide whether to press charges and whether alleged assailants go to trial. Often, they're weighing the credibility of two people under their command, an inherent conflict. When women "have the guts to report a rape, they are put through the ringer," says Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Panetta's directive to push charging decisions up a notch doesn't negate this conflict. Several other nations ― including Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom ― have put decisions on criminal matters where they belong, in the hands of military prosecutors. Speier has sponsored a measure that would make a similar change for sexual assault charges in the U.S. military. But the measure is unlikely to go anywhere if the Pentagon resists.
This article was published and distributed by USA Today.