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Last updateTue, 04 Nov 2014 9pm

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A breach of trust - Sexual assault in the military

Not too long ago, a friend of mine told me that his daughter wanted to join the military. She hadn’t decided on a branch of the service, at least not yet, but his quandary wasn’t in advising his daughter about whether to choose the Navy over the Army or to suggest the Air Force or the Marines.

No, his concern was whether or not to advise the military as a career choice at all. He didn’t have any qualms about military service. He is a retired officer. No, his concern was about her safety. Not from an enemy or from hazardous duty but, rather from within the ranks. The numbers are startling. No, they’re worse than that. They represent a national crisis. Last year there were 26,000 charges or complaints of sexual assaults in the U.S. Military. They range from attacks during training, in the field, and even in office situations. It’s a scandal, it’s a major breakdown in military discipline, and it’s disgraceful, but the U.S. Military has failed utterly to address the problem.

In some respects what’s going on in the U.S. military with regard to sexual assault bears a startling resemblance to the Catholic Churches long standing cover-up of child abuse by priests. Like the church the U.S. military, from its smallest commands to the Pentagon, has done its best to put a lid on this issue.

Perpetrators are sometimes transferred, or quietly discharged, before charges can be made. Complainants are reminded that filing charges will be bad for their careers. And commanders, knowing that having sexual assault charges on-going in their command could hurt their careers as well, have often done their best to quash the cases.

The numbers tell a powerful story. But the personal stories, both here at home, in training, and in far off service in Afghanistan and Iraq, are the most compelling. They represent a sort of moral bankruptcy that could well undermine our nation’s military and our national security. Sexual assault has become common. The military has done its best to play down the issue. In hearings before Congressional Committees uniformed witnesses have claimed that the numbers aren’t as bad as they seem and that many charges aren’t valid. But, it’s hard to get away from the sheer volume of complaints. Even if only half were true, it would still be a shocking number. When pushed into a corner, the Pentagon senior leadership is more contrite. They will readily agree with an angry Member of Congress that it is a national crisis at which point they commit themselves to a zero tolerance policy. What happens next is a little action, but not much, and something the Pentagon just loves, new databases to better understand the problem. In the meantime, the sexual assaults on women service members continue.

Something has to change and it has to change soon. A bill being considered in the Senate that may help is sponsored by Senator Kirstine Gillibrand of New York. It’s simple enough. It refers a sexual assault victim to a special legal officer outside her present command. This takes the issue out of the hands of the local commander and gives it an independent airing. Sounds fair enough, but that hasn’t been the reaction of the military. They feel it violates the sanctity of the chain-of-command and undermines discipline. Well, if the chain-of-command was working and discipline maintained, then none of this would be necessary. The bill has a host of bi-partisan supporters, including Senator Rand Paul, but also has its bi-partisan opponents. It probably won’t become law. The House is likely to oppose it, and so far, the President hasn’t offered his support either. But it may pass the Senate, and fear that if change doesn’t occur within, it will then be forced on them, may encourage the military leadership to do more about this crisis.

In years past, I would have enthusiastically supported the idea that young women should consider the service as their career. Now, or at least until this problem is properly dealt with, I am not so sure.
You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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