USS Enterprise: Do lewd videos point to deeper problem for military?
Capt. Owen Honors of the USS Enterprise was not sanctioned until this week for making lewd videos and broadcasting them over the ship's televisions several years ago. Critics say such permissive behavior contributes to rising rates of sexual crime in the military.
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But some believe that it calls into question the Navy’s judgment as well, and wonder why service leaders did not act sooner – particularly with evidence that cases of sexual assault in the military continue to rise.Skip to next paragraph
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The Pentagon's problem with sexual assault
The 64 percent increase at US military academies last academic year was partially a product of low numbers of reported cases. There were 25 sexual assaults reported in the 2008-09 school year, versus 41 in 2009-10, according to the report. Dr. Whitley argues, too, that the increase can be viewed positively to some extent, since it represents an increased willingness among victims to come forward and report the crimes.
But Whitley acknowledges that sexual assault is vastly underreported throughout the military. According to a survey of cadets at the academies, fewer than 1 in 10 cases are actually reported. Throughout the Defense Department, the Pentagon estimates that fewer than 20 percent of assaults are ever reported.
What’s more, the punishments for those found guilty are hardly severe, say some civil rights groups. “What’s very clear to us is that rape in the military – let alone assault and harassment – is not treated as a legitimate crime,” says Anu Baghwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), an advocacy group.
She argues that the majority of those found guilty of sexual assaults get administrative punishments rather than jail time.
Pentagon critics: progress, but more needed
Ms. Baghwati says she is heartened by provisions in the recent defense appropriations bill that provide for a hotline to be run by the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). “It’s an amazing civilian nonprofit, and it’s pretty radical that the DoD [Department of Defense] would partner with them,” she says.
For her part, the Pentagon's Whitley says she hopes that the hotline will encourage more victims to come forward, to “help us see an increase in reporting.”
The Pentagon is also launching an effort to professionalize a group known as sexual assault response coordinators. Currently, commanders can designate any one of their troops to the position and there is no mandatory training. Now, service members will have to volunteer for the job, and they will be required to receive training.
SWAN is pressing for greater changes at the Pentagon. It has also joined with the American Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit petitioning the Pentagon to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests for the release of data documenting how military service members’ complaints were handled.
Baghwati says she would like to see more civilian oversight of the military in sexual assault cases.
“The military is a culture that operates on fear and intimidation – in a good way. Your drill instructor instills that fear – if you mess up, you will face punishment. Without that punishment, you may not do the right thing. We hope you will, but you may not,” she says. “In the civilian world, there are deterrents to crime. We need that in place so commanders consistently do the right thing. Fear of litigation will shut this down. It’s what we need, it’s what the military needs.”