Senator’s plan best for GI sex-assault victims
This month, with the national #MeToo movement still in the headlines, the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (“SAPRO”) published its annual report. The report stated there were 5,110 reports of sexual assault in 2017, but only 406 resulted in court-martial. Even worse, only 284 of those cases that proceeded to trial led to a conviction.
Yet these reports do not even discuss an emerging problem: revenge porn.
In January 2017, a member of the 30,000-member Facebook group Marines United shared a link containing photographs of nude servicewomen. In March, the story broke. The commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps condemned such behavior. That same month, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing and the USMC issued new rules subjecting Marines who publish such materials online to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. One month later, survivors of revenge porn in the military testified on Capitol Hill. Subsequently, the Navy and Marine Corps issued new regulations, criminalizing the publication of revenge porn.
But this past April, history repeated: “Hoes Hoin” — a file containing 267 images of topless or nude servicewomen, along with their names and dog tags — appeared on a 400-member, all-male Facebook group. Earlier this month, Vice reported that a brochure circulated on a New Jersey military base blamed “sexting scandals” on the photographed servicemembers, not on those sharing the photos. In the year since Marines United, Vice reports that 131,000 photos of female servicemembers have been shared on 168 social media pages.
The scale of the ongoing revenge porn epidemic coupled with the new information from SAPRO highlights the insufficiency of the military’s response. But this inability or unwillingness to protect servicemembers isn’t new — it’s been the response to the scourge of sexual assault within our military for almost 30 years.
I run legal clinics that exclusively serve female veterans inside Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals. Seventy percent of my clients are survivors of rape or sexual assault in the military (military sexual trauma, or “MST”). My clients are as young as 22 and as old as 93. They have served in wartime and peacetime. I am haunted by the terror and powerlessness these women have felt.
In 1992, Navy Lt. Paula Coughlin denounced the cover-up of her assault at the military-affiliated Tailhook Symposium, launching an investigation that revealed that 90 servicemembers had been assaulted in a single weekend. In 1996, 12 drill instructors were charged with sex crimes at Aberdeen Proving Ground, a Maryland Army base. In 2003, a torrent of sexual assault allegations at the U.S. Air Force Academy resulted in nationwide media attention. In 2012, the documentary “The Invisible War” chronicled the crisis of sexual assault in the military. In 2013, the Air Force and the Army faced reports of female potential enlistees being assaulted by recruiters.
The data show 14,900 servicemembers were sexually assaulted in 2016. One in four of these women, and one in three of these men, was assaulted by someone in their chain of command. Also, 129,000 servicemembers faced severe and persistent sexual harassment or gender discrimination.
In 2015, 1,307,781 outpatient visits occurred at VA facilities for MST-related care. MST survivors are more than twice as likely to experience homelessness. VA researchers found male survivors are 70 percent more likely than other veterans to commit suicide, and female survivors are more than twice as likely to do so than other female veterans.
The military justice system must be overhauled. It is unacceptable to let commanders decide what actions to take, who should go to trial, and on what charges. The current system affords no protection for those who report — a victim often continues to work side by side with the perpetrator throughout the investigation. The SAPRO report indicates that large numbers of perpetrators are given nonjudicial punishments in lieu of court-martial. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., stated that the report “shows that more sexual predators are getting off the hook and fewer survivors are getting the justice they deserve. While reports might be up, accountability for sexual assault offenders is going down.”
Five years ago, Gillibrand introduced the Military Justice Improvement Act (“MJIA”) to remove the chain of command’s decision-making authority for certain serious crimes, including rape and assault. The main counter-argument is that this will undermine commanders’ authority. But military commanders have abdicated their authority by allowing these men and women to be victimized. What message does this send to those who serve? The readiness of our military is at stake.
The time is now. Far too few stories of #MeTooMilitary have been told. Enough is enough. We must act now to support our troops by passing the MJIA, cracking down on sexual harassment and assault in our military, and safeguarding their fundamental rights. These men and women risk the ultimate sacrifice — that should never include sexual victimization by their fellow servicemembers.
Samantha Kubek is an Equal Justice Works Fellow at New York Legal Assistance Group.