I’m one of those people who well up with admiration, gratitude and tears every time I see a group of service members in uniform. I frequently disagree with the military decisions of our nation’s leaders, but I am always in awe of those who volunteer to risk their lives defending American interests around the world.
It is beyond my comprehension that the greatest threat to many of the women in our military is the men they serve with. The latest report from the Defense Department estimates more than 26,000 troops a year experience sexual assault or harassment.
NPR did a series in March on women in the military and produced a stunning piece on sexual assault. (You can listen to it here, but be warned that it is deeply disturbing.) The women in the story said being raped once made them a target for further assaults by other commanding officers. They said that women who cared about their jobs and about being professional were the most likely to be assaulted. That they were told providing sex was part of the job description. And that all too often, the man committing the rape was the same person they were expected to report it to.
When female service members do report sexual assaults, justice is often unattainable. With an estimated 26,000 assault victims, “the number of actually reported sexual assaults for the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2012 was 3,374. Of that number, only 190 were sent to a court-martial proceeding.”
Even in those rare cases when the rapists are tried and convicted, justice can be taken from their victims on a whim. Air Force Lt. Col. James Wilkerson was found guilty of sexual assault by a military jury last November and was sentenced to one year in jail and dismissal from military service – until his commanding officer, Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin, threw out the verdict.
And when the man in charge of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention program is arrested and charged with sexual battery, how can women in the military have any confidence that their voices will be heard and their rights respected?
Perhaps the one positive step now being taken to combat military sexual assault is happening thanks to a bipartisan group of female lawmakers in Congress. The Republican and Democratic women who serve on the Senate and House Armed Services Committees are fighting for laws that will change how cases of sexual assault are handled and, if implemented, could go a long way to restoring honor to the military and justice to victims.
Learn more about the epidemic of sexual assault and other challenges facing women in the military at the Service Women’s Action Network website.