Pentagon sex assault report shows progress, but victims still in shadows

A Pentagon report on sex assault in the military holds some hopefuls signs, but many women still fear retribution for coming forward.

Larry Downing/Reuters/File
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York speaks about legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2013.

To Pentagon officials, the survey on sexual assault in the military released Thursday is full of signs of progress.

Reports of sexual assault are on the rise, which suggests that more victims are comfortable coming forward, they say. Indeed, 1 in 4 victims chose to report their claims of sexual assault this year, up from 1 in 10 two years ago, the survey suggests.

To Jennifer Brier, however, these positive trends are not the full story. There is another statistic that is just as poignant: 62 percent of the women who reported a sexual assault said that they experienced some kind of retaliation, “with most perceiving social retaliation from co-workers or peers,” according to the study.

Ms. Brier, a retired Marine staff sergeant, can relate to that intimately. She spent 10 years in the military without ever reporting the senior non-commissioned officer who she says sexually assaulted her when she was a teen just out of basic training.

Another former Marine, Anu Bhagwati, sees a Pentagon that has taken needed steps to support victims who come forward but has done little to change a justice system that at times seems stacked against them.

They are just two voices of former service members, but they point to silent voices within the Pentagon who laud the change afoot but see how much work remains to be done before they are viewed as truly equal colleagues in uniform.

That process begins, the two women say, with holding the perpetrators of sexual crimes to account.

“The [Department of Defense] has done a very good job of supporting victims through services, which is fantastic, but very little has been done to improve the quality of the judicial system,” says Ms. Bhagwati, who is now the executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network.

The system involves rules that give commanders the authority not only personally to choose jurors but also to overturn a judge's sentence. The Military Justice Improvement Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York, would take responsibility for prosecuting sexual assaults away from commanders and put it into the hands of independent prosecutors. But a similar measure was defeated in the Senate amid the protests by Pentagon officials, who argued that it would remove key authorities from commanders.

Within hours after the release of the report Thursday, advocacy groups renewed their calls for the Senate to pass the Gillibrand bill.

When Brier looks back on her experience, she says it “did not even occur” to her to report her attacker. She had just turned 18 and was assaulted after being posted to Okinawa, where she was “very, very” new on base. Around the same time, she witnessed “significant retaliation” against a fellow sexual assault victim and did not want to share her fate. 

Today, after a military career that ran from 1994 to 2004, she has told her story to some fellow Marines. But their responses, while sympathetic, only make her feel worse, she says.  

“Consistently, the message that I get is, ‘I never thought that [sexual assault] would happen to a girl like you,’ ” she says. “They think what they were saying was supportive, but it is like a gut punch. What ‘kind of girl’ does that happen to?” she asks.

Ironically, comments like those only make her more convinced that her decision to stay silent – while wrenching – was the right one, given the culture of the military.

“Had I come forward at the time, I don’t think they would have gotten to know me as the woman I am, because I would have been flagged as ‘one of those girls.’ ”

The bottom line, she says, is that even though “these are people that are wonderful professionals who respect me, there’s still that undercurrent of victim blaming.”

Thursday's survey suggests that undercurrent remains and continues to contribute to high rates of retaliation, adds Brier, who is now a counselor for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Today, she sees evidence of the same culture in her current job. Around the halls of the VA,  it is far more common to hear fellow veteran care providers accuse female rape victims of “working the system” for post-traumatic stress treatment than it is to hear male combat veterans accused of doing the same thing for their post-traumatic stress claims, she says. 

And while she is heartened by the increases in those willing to come forward to report sexual crimes, Brier believes it is “essential” that perpetrators are punished through a reformed military justice system.

One important step has been a law passed last year making it a punishable offense to retaliate against a victim of sexual assault. “The interesting thing,” Bhagwati says, “will be to see if anybody gets charged with it.” 

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