Lt. General Michelle Johnson took command of the United States Air Force Academy yesterday in front of a crowd of 4,000 in Colorado Springs. She is only the second woman to head this prestigious US service academy, and it should have been a day of celebration for progressivity in our nation’s military. Unfortunately, this honor is overshadowed by major concerns with the as-yet-unaddressed prevalence of sexual assaults within our armed services.
There were 3,191 reports of sexual assault in fiscal year 2011. That’s been about the average for past five years, but experts believe it captures only a fraction of the number of actual incidents. Reports from the DoD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office have estimated a shocking 26,000 instances of assault occurred last year, an increase of 7,000 from 2011. These statistics are simply terrifying. 1 in 5 women in the military are victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault during their time in service. And while the percentage of male victims is lower, the raw number of male soldiers sexually assaulted dwarfs the number of women. It’s a problem that crosses the gender line.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has outlined a number of steps the DoD is working to undertake to reduce sexual assaults. These measures would establish a certification program for response coordinators and victim advocates, increase and improve victim care, increase funds for specialized training for investigators and judge advocates, and improve data sharing and reporting of assault tracking to bring together information across the different branches of the military. One Navy program focusing on early intervention has shown progress in reducing the number of actual and attempted assaults.
But these steps simply do not go far enough. Unfortunately, the time has come to remove the adjudication of sexual assault from the chain of command. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), authority over criminal cases rests with the offender’s commander rather than prosecutors and judges. This has precluded impartial decision making, created a biased judicial system for both the victim and the accused, and represents a major part of the reason for such a vast number of unreported incidents.
The current structure is keeping in place a culture that is more interested in hiding or ignoring the problem, rather than protecting victims and seeking justice. This culture of turning a blind eye or even punishing the victim allows perpetrators to act with impunity. Many female victims of sexual assault have been charged with adultery because the perpetrator is married, while the man gets off with barely a slap on the wrist. Moving the disposition of sexual assault cases from commanding officers to professional prosecutors and judges is the only option at this point to clean up a broken system.
The brave men and women who serve this country deserve to be safe and free from sexual harassment and assault. I will continue to support measures that properly address this serious issue and create an environment and culture wherein victims of these heinous crimes do not fear reprisals for reporting their assaults, and the perpetrators are brought to justice.