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Sex and the Military: the Problems the Tabloids Aren't Talking About

This Veteran’s Day, the biggest news story about the military was the resignation of CIA Director and retired General David Petraeus in the wake of his affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. But though more salacious details keep coming out, this story only serves to distract us from a huge problem going on in the military: that of sexual assault.

A case that should be major news, but hasn’t garnered nearly as much attention as Petraeus’s affair, is that of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, who was criminally charged in September with forcible sodomy, multiple counts of adultery and inappropriate relationships with several female officers. The Army kept the allegations against him a secret until November 5, when a military hearing was held at Fort Bragg.

This summer, five male instructors at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas were convicted of over 28 counts of sexual crimes, including adultery, rape, and inappropriate relationships with female trainees who reported to them. Eleven more instructors have charges pending against them, and the number of victims could reach 50.

These are just a few of the many cases that arise each year, part of a terrible story of abuse that the military has been facing for years. More than 3,000 sexual assault cases throughout all the branches of the military were reported in 2011. The Defense Department’s annual report on sexual assault in the military estimated that 19,000 servicemembers experienced sexual assault in 2010, but only 2,617 of these reported the incident. According to the report, the vast majority of victims of these crimes are female (88%) and under the age of 25 (68%).

Since the Department began providing the annual reports and set up the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), there have been some improvements in how the system handles sexual assaults. The punishments for Service members who received disciplinary action for sexual assault have increased steadily since 2007, with over 60% receiving court-martial charges in 2011, up from 30% in 2007. SAPRO has launched several campaigns to increase confidence in reporting and institutional response to reports, such as a 24 hour Safe Helpline and a new forensic exam form and training to help military healthcare providers treat sexual assault victims. However, assaults are still vastly underreported, and there has not been any improvement in this aspect of the problem. Of course, underreporting of sexual assault and harassment remains a huge problem in civilian populations as well, so this is not just a military problem.

In September, 19 veterans, both men and women, filed a lawsuit against the DoD alleging that it failed to protect them from sexual assault while they were on active duty in the military. This lawsuit is one of many filed by organizations such as The American Association of University Women. An earlier lawsuit, Cioca v. Rumsfeld, was dismissed in December of 2011 by the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. All of these lawsuits are vulnerable to dismissal because of the “incident to military service” doctrine prohibiting Bivens actions when the injury arises out of activity incident to service in the military. Essentially, the Supreme Court’s case law following Bivens (see, e.g., Chappell v. Wallace, United States v. Stanley, and Feres v. United States) has considerably narrowed the applicability of Bivens actions to provide remedies for servicemen against their superior officers.

Because a remedy at court is not looking promising, Congresswoman Jackie Speier introduced H.R. 3435 in November 2011. This bill, known as the STOP Act, would create a civilian-run office to investigate sexual assault in the military, run training programs, and provide treatment and support for victims of sexual assault in the military. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Armed Services, but nothing has happened to it since that time.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has begun to speak more to the press about this issue, which is a sign that the Department is beginning to take this more seriously than it used to. He has called the assaults at Lackland “an outrage” and claimed that the military has a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual harassment or assault. But the statistics show that sadly, this is not yet the case.

We as a country should be striving to eliminate sexual assault in the military, as it not only causes horrible pain for victims but is also a drain on our resources and makes our military less safe, less effective and ultimately compromises the defense of the country.


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