Sexual assault: Women lawmakers push for change in US military

In the latest in a string of sexual assault cases in the military, US Naval Academy football players are accused of assaulting a female midshipman. More such victims are publicly telling their stories, and in Congress, women are leading the way to prevent such attacks.

Richard Vogel/AP
Sen. Barbara Boxer joins former U.S. Marine and survivor of military sexual assault Stacey Thompson at a news conference at the California Women's Law Center in Los Angeles on Friday.

Sexual assault in the US military is accelerating toward likely change in the way such cases are handled by senior uniformed officers – which is to say, it may be taken out of their hands.

It’s a function of changing public attitudes regarding military service and sexual misconduct beyond “he said, she said” – given greater strength by the growing ranks of women in senior elected positions.

In Congress, women lawmakers are leading the charge, pushing legislation that would take the authority to investigate and punish instances of sexual assault out of the chain of command, away from commanding officers whose potential conflict of interest may favor the military’s “good order and discipline” as it applies to unit cohesion and war-fighting ability over vigorously prosecuting sexual offenders in the ranks, including fellow officers.

In the latest of a string of recent cases, three US Naval Academy football players are under investigation for alleged sexual assault last year against a female midshipman. The incident occurred in April 2012 at an off-campus house in Annapolis, Maryland.

The woman reported the allegations to Navy criminal investigators and was disciplined for under-age drinking while the athletes, one of whom discouraged her from cooperating with investigators, were permitted to continue playing, Susan Burke, a lawyer for the female midshipman, told the Associated Press.

"The institution sent her a message loud and clear about its values," Ms. Burke said. Naval Academy officials have reopened the case, but refused further comment.

In another newly reported incident, former Marine Corps lance corporal Stacey Thompson says she was assaulted by a sergeant who laced her drinks with drugs, raped her in his barracks and then dumped her onto a street outside a nightclub at 4 a.m. She was 19 years old when the alleged attack occurred 14 years ago, she said in an Associated Press interview.

She was separated from the Marine Corps with a less-than-honorable discharge for drug use – based, she says, on statements from friends of the perpetrator.

"I felt the Marine Corps re-victimized me again after getting raped," said the 32-year-old mother of three.

She is now appealing her case to the Department of Veterans Affairs and is seeking compensation related to military sexual trauma, reports the AP. After that, she plans to also appeal her discharge status to get it upgraded to honorable.

President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel have spoken out against sexual assault in recent commencement addresses at service academies, and military leaders have vowed to crack down on a problem that’s gotten much more attention in recent months as case after case comes to light.

The Pentagon announced this week that it has launched an online chat called “Safe HelpRoom” for troops who are victims of sexual abuse. The moderated chats will be held twice a week.

"Survivors of sexual assault have told us that being able to discuss their concerns with peers can provide a level of support not available through other means," acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica Wright said in a statement. "Safe HelpRoom is a groundbreaking development in the department's commitment to support military victims of sexual assault."

The chat may be groundbreaking for the US military, but it is unlikely to satisfy lawmakers – especially the growing numbers of women in the US House and the US Senate.

Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, (D) of New York; Susan Collins (R) of Maine; Barbara Boxer (D) of California; Barbara Mikulski, (D) of Maryland; Jeanne Shaheen, (D) of New Hampshire; and Tulsi Gabbard, (D) of Hawaii, (who is a Captain in the National Guard) are among the cosponsors of a bill to remove oversight of sexual assault cases from the military command structure.

The Senate Armed Services Committee has scheduled a hearing on the subject this coming week.

“To be sure, the vast, overwhelming majority of our military personnel are honorable, conscientious, and respectful individuals, not rapists or harassers,” Senator Collins said in introducing the bill earlier this month. “It is for their sake that the pattern of covering up, blaming the victim, and failing to provide even the most basic protections that has been all too common for far too long must end,” 

“We must continue to work to ensure that no woman or man who joins the military is denied the justice and the protections available to civilians,” Collins said. “Ultimately, the military’s policy of zero tolerance for sexual harassment and assault must become a culture of zero tolerance to prevent these crimes from occurring in the first place.”

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