Attacks on troops’ spouses and on civilians who live near military bases could account for many of the sexual assaults perpetrated by service members, but are not part of military estimates on how often the crime occurs, according to a senator’s independent report.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat, received documents on 107 cases of sexual assault reported to the military during fiscal 2013 at the largest base for each service: the Army’s Fort Hood, Texas; Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia; Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California; and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
A Defense Department report released last week estimated that 20,000 service members were sexually assaulted in fiscal 2014. The report found that instances of sexual assault were down while reporting was up 11 percent to 6,131 cases, suggesting troops are more comfortable bringing their cases to the military.
Ms. Gillibrand’s findings, however, found that 53 percent of the cases she analyzed involved civilian women or nonmilitary spouses of troops being assaulted by a member of the military. Extrapolating out from those numbers, she found that including nonmilitary victims in those estimates on the prevalence of sexual assault could almost double the number in fiscal 2014 to 42,000.
Ms. Gillibrand said the military should survey civilians in military communities and spouses about their experiences with sexual assault to give a more complete picture, but Laura Seal, a Defense Department spokeswoman, said the military “does not have standing authority to survey non-DoD civilian populations.”
“The department also conducts biennial prevalence surveys of our service member population, which are conducted in accordance with the parameters set in federal law,” she said in a statement.
Ms. Gillibrand’s report provides details of seven sexual assaults of the 107 cases the Defense Department provided to her request. In one, a Marine impersonating a police officer went to a hotel and, after brandishing a gun and showing a fake badge to a prostitute working in the hotel, told her he was conducting a raid. After putting the prostitute in handcuffs, he raped her.
Although authorities linked the Marine to another rape case, there is no evidence of any punishment, the report says.
The report also found that nearly three-quarters of service members’ spouses who report sexual assault decline to press charges, noting that the “military justice system is clearly failing these military spouses.”
One case in the report said a military wife accused her husband, a Marine, of anally raping her, though her husband claimed it was consensual. Four days after reporting the attack, the wife committed suicide. The military recommended that her husband receive parenting and anger management counseling, but imposed no nonjudicial punishment despite a history of domestic violence and alcohol abuse, the report said.
The victims in nearly half the cases reviewed by the senator declined to move forward with a trial after taking the first step to report the crime. Ms. Gillibrand said this suggests a culture of retaliation that discourages victims from pursuing charges.
“Of those 50, many voluntarily submitted to an intrusive sexual assault evidence collection kit, showing a strong commitment to pursuing justice,” the report said. “The fear of retaliation, which remains a major problem according to the Department of Defense, among other factors, could be a major concern.”
Ms. Gillibrand, a proponent of stripping military commanders of their ability to send sexual assault cases to court-martial, said the results of her report further show the need for an independent military justice system where decisions on which cases to try are made by impartial, trained military lawyers, not commanders with no legal training who may be biased.
Col. Don Christensen, the former Air Force chief prosecutor, also called for the report to serve as a “wake-up call” for the president to make major reforms to the military justice system.
“This report is shocking. It exposes how many civilians are victims of the sexual assault crisis in our military and the depths the military will go to obstruct change,” he said. “Military leaders continue to try and spin the scope of the problem with cherry-picked information that only tells half of the story.”
Ms. Gillibrand also took issue with the Defense Department’s lack of transparency. Although she asked for documents on all sexual assaults at the four bases from 2009 to 2013, the military provided only redacted cases from 2013. Even then, it took 308 days and intervention from former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin to get any results, the report says.
Ms. Seal said that because of the “extraordinary scope” of the senator’s request, Ms. Gillibrand and the Defense Department came to an agreement to provide only a subset of the documents she originally requested.
Greg Jacobs, policy director at Service Women’s Action Network, encouraged the Defense Department to release more detailed data in its reports so analysts can find the 10 best bases and 10 worst bases for sexual assault prevention and response. More comprehensive data would allow struggling bases to learn best practices from those who are succeeding in eliminating attacks and taking reporting seriously, he said.
“Without that, the military is flying blind,” he said.
While civilians living in military communities or spouses of service members aren’t polled by the Defense Department in prevalence surveys, the military does include civilians who report a sexual assault committed by a service member in its reports to the president and Congress.
There were 6,131 reports of sexual assault to the military in fiscal 2014, according to the most recent report released Friday. Of those, 745 were reports made by non-service member victims where a member of the military was the alleged perpetrator of the sexual assault.
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