Military sexual assault: Can retaliation against victims be stopped?

Victims who report military sexual assault are 12 times more likely to experience retaliation than to see their attacker convicted of a sex crime, according to a new report. 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York is reflected in a framed US flag while she is interviewed in Washington about military sexual assaults, on April 30, 2015. The senator supports the creation of an independent military justice system to prosecute military sexual assault cases, taking such cases out of the hands of commanders within units.

Diane Martinez, a petty officer third class, was impressed by the Coast Guard long before she joined.

Her husband had been serving for years, and in that time, “I asked questions about it, and I fell in love with what my spouse was doing.” 

She was particularly intrigued by the unique missions of the Coast Guard, including search and rescue. “We save lives,” she says. “I loved my service.” 

Her hurt, then, was in direct proportion to this love one evening when she says she was groped by a fellow coast guardsman and experienced how the service members she had once considered family banded together – against her. 

Ms. Martinez – who requested a pseudonym because she is still on active duty – filed a report and, in return, was court-martialed when a number of her fellow Coast Guard members drummed up a story to protect the perpetrator, who was well liked around the office.

It is this sort of retaliation with which the majority – 62 percent, according to a recent Pentagon survey – of service members who experience unwanted sexual contact and decide to report it must grapple.

In fact, victims who report military sexual assault are 12 times more likely to experience retaliation than to see their attacker convicted of a sex crime, warns a Human Rights Watch report released Monday. The report sheds light on some of the experiences of military troops – and suggests some of the ways in which this kind of retaliation could ultimately be addressed.

Currently, an estimated 1 in 4 victims reports sexual assault to military authorities, a relatively small figure due in large part to fear of reprisal, warns the HRW report. 

“Service members consistently cite fear of retaliation from the perpetrator or the perpetrator’s friends, or concerns about their careers, as reasons for not reporting,” the report notes.

“Although the military has undertaken significant and commendable reforms in how it handles sexual assault cases in recent years,” it adds, “this fear is well-founded.” 

“There’s a toxic culture of retaliation against survivors and a complete lack of accountability,” says Miranda Petersen, policy and program director at Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy organization for service members who are victims of sexual assault. “We couldn’t find any evidence of folks being punished or held accountable" for retaliating against a victim. 

This was Staff Sgt. Ciera Bridges's experience in 2010, when she says she was harassed by a supervisor. The behavior didn’t stop, so she complained to his boss. “I kind of jumped the chain of command, because that’s what needed to happen,” she says. 

The problem was the two men were friends. She filed a complaint to the inspector general. In the meantime, she says, the command drummed up false charges to get her dishonorably discharged.

It was not what she expected when she joined the Air Force. Her father had served for 33 years, as a senior master sergeant. Her grandfather had been in the Army. “In my family, you either went to college or joined the military,” Bridges says.

Her dad had worried about what might happen if she reported the harassment. During his career, “He’d seen how sexual assault cases were handled and mishandled,” she says. “He sat me down and walked me through it step by step, and said that fighting it is probably going to end my career.”

Ultimately, she says, it did. But after speaking with her father, she decided she had to report it, not only for herself, but for the women who would come after her.

She went to her senator, Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, who helped her fight for an honorable discharge, which she ultimately received after bringing him the detailed records and documentation she had kept.

“That was satisfying,” Bridges says, “but they still didn’t do anything to my perpetrator,” who remains, along with his friend and supervisor, on active duty. 

The calculus Martinez undertook in deciding to report the sexual assault was similar to that of Bridges. Ultimately, she prevailed in her court-martial when the service’s own investigation revealed the discrepancies in the stories of her fellow Coast Guard service members, which they admitted on the stand. 

Still, she says, she would like to see an independent military justice system, which would take responsibility for prosecuting military sexual assault cases out of the hands of commanders within units, who may have a vested interest, advocates say, in keeping such cases quiet. 

Such legislation was defeated in Congress last year, but continues to be advocated by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York and others.

The HRW report also suggests a need for more protection, ultimately, of military whistle-blowers. 

A bill proposed last month by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California, among others, would put such protections in place, says Ms. Petersen of Protect Our Defenders.

“We think military whistle-blowers need the same protections as civilians – and that they need to be enforced.”

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