Sex assault in the military: Victims need trust, care

As Congress and the Pentagon rush reforms to curb sex assaults in the military, they must focus foremost on raising trust in military justice and in the care of victims. Only than will reporting rates rise.

US military generals testify about pending legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military at a Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington June 4.

In coming days, Congress will take up a range of bills aimed at reducing sexual misconduct in the American military. Each of the armed services knows it has a problem and is working hard at reforms of its own. The scope of the problem is indeed disturbing: In addition to recent high-profile sexual assault cases, the Pentagon says only a fraction of the 26,000 soldiers who experienced “unwanted sexual contact” last year reported it.

Most of the proposed remedies would make it easier to simply report sexual violence or harassment. Two-thirds of personnel who have reported sexual misconduct – both men and women – say they have experienced some form of retaliation. This climate of fear needs to be replaced with a climate of trust and the assurance of justice that will help raise reporting rates.

Any military relies on a high level of trust within combat units to be effective. In addition, civilian society looks to its military as a model of discipline and service to others, or what Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, calls the “spiritual health” of soldiers in their sacred duty to take care of each other and not prey on each other.

In addition, young people will shy away from joining the service if sexual predators are not prevented from joining the military or not weeded out swiftly within its ranks.

Perhaps the most affirmative reform would be an increase in the care for those who report a sex crime. The Air Force has a pilot program that provides legal and other counseling to victims. This advocacy for victims needs to be quickly expanded with the support from Congress.

Another proposed solution would take away the authority of a commander to decide whether to prosecute a sex crime. A few allies, such as Britain and Australia, have done this, but it is still unclear whether such a move might erode the unique necessity of a military to maintain a strong chain of command. And the Pentagon makes a case that commanders are the ones best suited to detect sexual violations and assess the need for a trial.

The US military currently provides many channels for victims to report a sex crime other than through a commander. And commanders do work closely with judge advocates in making a decision to prosecute. Congress could make it mandatory that a commander’s decision be reviewed by a higher commander. This would maintain proper authority. Commanders cannot be held responsible for their troops’ behavior without having strong authority.

Both Congress and the military chiefs already seem to agree that a decades-old ability of a commander to overturn a conviction should end. Such judicial power gives the impression of arbitrariness and is no longer needed.

Other reforms include better data collection within the military on the various types of complaints about sexual misconduct as well as more rigorous review of how each commander sets a “climate” of discipline and intolerance toward sexual misconduct – including off-color jokes and lewd posters.

The top brass admits it has been lax in taking better preventive steps against sexual misconduct. Yet the military has a track record of reform, such as dealing with racial discrimination and drug use. With more women joining the services and its reputation at stake, the Pentagon knows it must solve the “scourge” of sexual misconduct in its ranks as quickly as possible.

As reforms are made, both Congress and the Pentagon need to find the right balance. Affirming the dignity of each service member is as critical to this task as more aggressive action against sexual predation. And both the military’s culture and its justice system need to change. Done well, reforms will restore trust within the military but also society’s trust in the military.

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