Congress Stalls As Military Sexual Assault Numbers Rise

Credit: Flickr

Credit: Flickr

By Rachel Allen

Today, women make up roughly 15 percent of the military population and this year, Congress decided to take up a bill aimed at creating change when it comes to the reporting of sexual assault and how it’s handled within the ranks.

If passed, this year’s annual defense bill in regard to sexual assault would provide protection to those who come forward, according to Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, including:

  • Stripping military commanders of the ability to overturn jury conviction
  • The requirement of a civilian review if a commander declines to prosecute a case
  • Assigning survivors their own independent legal counsel to protect their rights and fight for their interests
  • Mandating dishonorable discharge for those convicted of sexual assault
  • Criminalizing retaliation against victims who report a sexual assault
  • Eliminating the statute of limitations in rape and sexual assault cases

These proposals were approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee and went under review during the debate of the annual defense bill last month. Sen. McCaskill, along with two other colleagues, went further to include revocation of the “good soldier” defense, which is used to protect those accused of assault.

There are other approaches to military sexual trauma being taken into consideration in the passing of the bill, as well such as the Military Justice Improvement Act proposed by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand of New York. The act, while controversial, proposes removing prosecution of serious crimes out of the military chain of command entirely. Instead, an impartial team of military prosecutors would handle the cases and also have the authority to decide which cases go to trial. In her article for the Huffington Post, Soraya Chemaly listed 50 reasons why the Military Justice Improvement Act should have been passed, including 26,000 instances of unwanted sexual contact that occurred in the military, 40 percent of survivors indicated that the perpetrator was their ranking officer, and that men make up 85.5 percent of the armed forces.

In allowing women to join the military, we agreed as a nation that women deserve equal rights when it comes to combat. We didn’t agree that when those women join the military they consent to be raped by one or multiple colleagues. We didn’t agree that women’s lives should be seen less valuable than those of men. If we consider a place of employment, there are laws to protect women against sexual advancement, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. In this showdown on the treatment of women when it comes to sexual assault in the military, when the bill was stalled last month, we continued to deny women the legal protection we would give them if they were employed in a different vocation. What makes the military any different?

In a culture dominated by machismo, sexual trauma in the military is widely misunderstood. It isn’t until we hear personal stories of those afflicted that we can come to understand the emotional effects of serving our country if we are female.

Take Trista, for instance. She always knew she had wanted to be in the military and served in three branches. Trista also was a survivor of sexual assault, became pregnant from her assault, and gave birth to a young boy with autism. She didn’t recognize the effects of her sexual assault until years later when she discussed it with a Veterans Affairs counselor. Trista is one example of those 26,000 individuals, the difference is that Trista confronted her assault and told her story.

If we as Americans look to the military as a beacon of strength and protection, it makes it not only important but necessary to reflect on that particular institution. If we hold them to a higher standard of ethical conduct and they are ignoring and perpetuating institutionalized rape culture and misogyny, how is it not possible that our society will also ignore and perpetuate that culture as well?  Taking the steps necessary to allow for protection of sexual assault survivors in the military is  instrumental in creating protection for those who live within our nation. Passing such laws sets an example within a patriarchal society that rape is something that won’t be tolerated. Isn’t it about time that we make a powerful statement such as this?

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