Security Under Assault


Russia’s aggressive posture and nuclear arsenal pose “an existential threat to the United States,” according to General Joseph Dunford, now the newest Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the top military leader in the country. The comments, which came during a Senate confirmation hearing for the next chairman, ignited the defense community and revealed a lot about our current military priorities. While many pundits have focused on General Dunford’s grim assessment of Russian intent or his strategy for defeating ISIS, however, another observation has seemingly slipped through the cracks: when it comes to the issue of sexual assault in the military, congressional interest is divided, not along partisan lines, but gendered ones. Interspersed between questions on China, Russia, and even the origin of the Gen. Dunford’s “Fighting Joe” nickname, four out of seven women on the Senate Armed Services Committee made time to ask about the epidemic of sexual assault in the military. While Senators Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Mazie Hirono (D-HI) saw fit to mention the issue, not a single one of the committee’s nineteen men spoke up. This, quite frankly, is unacceptable.

By now, the statistics surrounding sexual assault in the military have been widely distributed. Last year 20,000 service members were the victims of either sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact, translating to more than 52 cases a day. Of those, only one fourth of the survivors were willing to report their assault, and for good reason: 62 percent of those who did received retaliation from their command or their peers.

To some, the idea that female senators are disproportionately invested in the problem of sexual assault might not sound so alarming. They are, after all, just looking out for the female demographic that elected them to office. But this argument ignores the reality that more than half of the victims of sexual assault in the military are men. Besides, even if this were not true, are we really comfortable defining sexual assault as a women’s issue? Do the men and women of Congress not share an equal stake in ending this problem?

So far, the debate in the Senate has been driven by two familiar, if sometimes divergent voices. Sen. McCaskill succeeded in passing the Victims Protection Act last year, which implemented a number of helpful changes in the ways that commanders handle alleged sexual assaults. Sen. Gillibrand, meanwhile, has had less success with her own, further reaching Military Justice Improvement Act, which narrowly failed to pass in June as an amendment to the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Had it become law, Sen. Gillibrand’s legislation would have shifted the authority to prosecute military sexual assaults away from the unit commander to an independent military prosecutor outside of the victim’s chain of command. In doing so, supporters of the amendment had hoped to reduce the high rate of retaliation against service members reporting assaults and remove the decision to prosecute from commanders who may have a personal relationship with the accused.

It is true that Senators McCaskill and Gillibrand have often butted heads over the best way to fix the military justice system and end the environment of retaliation that it has encouraged. While they may not agree on the specifics of a solution, however, their activism has shrouded the debate in a distinctly feminine voice. While many of the men in Congress have been willing to speak in favor of or vote for legislation addressing sexual assault in the military, their silence during Gen. Dunford’s confirmation hearing only reaffirms the perception that it is, in the end, a fringe issue, relegated to the purview of women while the old boys handle the defense questions that “really matter.”

The result of Congress’s lackluster response to military sexual assault is a predictable one: the US Department of Defense, while paying lip service to the issue, has repeatedly failed to reduce sexual assaults, end workplace retaliation, or engender confidence in the military justice system. While the reporting of sexual assault by survivors has experienced a modest improvement over the past few years, the military’s willingness to prosecute alleged offenders and protect victims remains stagnant.

The victims of this congressional indifference and military inaction are many, and thanks to films such as The Invisible War and organizations like My Duty to Speak, their stories are finally being told. What they provide is a grim view of the treatment and experiences of sexual assault survivors both past and present.

One story to emerge is that of former Marine 2nd Lt. Elle Helmer who, following a St. Patrick’s Day pub crawl with peers from the Marine Barracks Washington, was reportedly called into the office and raped by a superior officer. She remembered struggling against her assailant before falling and slamming her head on his desk, and her superior officer was later found passed out in the room, naked from the waist down. Despite this, she was discouraged from seeking medical help or forensic examination and her accusation was largely dismissed by other officers on account of her drinking. Eventually, in an act of retaliation that has become all too common, an investigation was opened against 2nd Lt. Helmer and she was discharged for “public intoxication” and “conduct unbecoming an officer.” Her assailant, meanwhile, remained unpunished and continued to serve.

The risk of military sexual assault and the difficulties faced in pursuing justice pose a very real problem for men as well. In another case, a former Navy sailor identified as Heath Phillips by the organization Protect Our Defenders was sexually assaulted shortly after reporting to his first duty station at Naval Weapons Station Earle in New Jersey. His assailants insisted that he was just being hazed as an initiation into the group. His superiors insisted that he was lying. Eventually, after his unit failed to respond to his complaints or protect him from repeated sexual assaults by his peers, Phillips returned home at his family’s request and was soon charged for being AWOL, or absent without leave. Due to the “other than honorable” discharge that he received, Phillips was subsequently denied treatment for his PTSD by the Veterans Affairs hospital, and while some of his assailants would eventually be caught assaulting other sailors, no charges were filed in response to his accusations.

These cases are far from anomalies, and as a May 2015 Human Rights Watch report confirms, the problems of dismissal and retaliation are not going away, even after the Department of Defense’s most recent efforts at reform. Central to this failure is an idea among lawmakers and DOD officials alike that the military has more important issues to tackle, and that any major change to the military justice system will come to the detriment of the armed forces’ primary mission of fighting wars and protecting national security.

This mentality has to change. Congress, the Department of Defense, and the American people cannot keep treating the issue of military sexual assault as one divorced from our defense priorities or the integrity of our armed forces. As a veteran of the Marine Corps myself, I can speak to the importance of a positive command climate that encourages troop unity and trust in leadership. All of this is degraded by an environment of fear and retaliation, which can poison a command structure and delay military readiness.

To combat this, Human Rights Watch has made a number of recommendations to Congress, including that they expand “protection to prohibit retaliatory investigations,” “procedural protections for complainants,” and “streamline the process for whistleblowers to get relief.” While such reforms are easy enough in theory, however, recent failings have shown that their implementation may require a significant look at the structure of the military justice system and the role of commanding officers in handling sexual assaults.

In 2013, 35 law school professors and military JAG (Judge Advocate General) officers issued a statement conceding that: “Commanders play a decisive role in military operations and must likewise play a central role in reducing sexual assault and maintaining good order and discipline generally. That role, however, need not extend to the relatively narrow and thoroughly legal arena of criminal prosecution.” In other words, responsibility for prosecuting cases of sexual assault need not remain in the hands of commanding officers, especially when their friends and peers are among the accused. The adoption of such structural changes, in line with Sen. Gillibrand’s attempted legislation, may indeed have a tremendous impact on the prosecution of military sexual assailants and the protection of survivors. However, a truly effective solution may need to account for the pervasive culture of sexism and exclusion that exists in many units throughout the military, and which discourages service members from coming forward and disrupting the illusion of order and discipline when they are assaulted.

Perhaps most importantly, if military sexual assault is ever to be dealt with properly, representatives and senators on both sides of the political and gender divide need to stop treating it as a fringe discussion that remains outside the scope of national security. It is time that all members of Congress recognize that ending the epidemic of sexual assault in the military is both a moral imperative and a strategic one. Until they do, we will continue to fail our men and women in uniform and endanger the effectiveness of our military force. •

Cody Wiles is a senior at the School of General Studies majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies. Before coming to Columbia, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps as an artilleryman with the 11th Marine Regiment and has remained active in both veteran and defense communities. He can be reached at: