Sex assaults taint military (U.S.)

Posted on July 26, 2012

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Source: Telegram.com

“Feminazi.” “Hey you, with the hair.” “B—.”

Jenny McClendon heard these words frequently from her class leader when she first joined the Navy 15 years ago. But when she reported the verbal harassment, members of the staff treated her as if she had done something wrong.

Her peers ostracized her and her class leader told everyone in her course that those setting out to sea with Ms. McClendon should “make her pay.”

And “pay” she did.

While at sea, a fellow sailor raped and vomited on her while they were on mid-watch together.

“I couldn’t imagine being more demoralized that night,” Ms. McClendon said in an interview. She even contemplated suicide. She said she made a noose from her sheets and thought of jumping off the ship.

Ms. McClendon’s experience is not an isolated one in the military. And, by all indications, the problem has not abated in the years since her assault.

“Despite our efforts we have been ineffective at addressing and eliminating sexual assault within our ranks,” Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, acknowledged in a Defense Department report released last month.

According to an American Journal of Industrial Medicine report, one in three women leaving military service has experienced some form of military sexual trauma, which the DOD defines as rape, sexual assault or sexual harassment.

Recent events — such as a DOD study that found there were 333 reports of sexual assault within the military last year, and allegations that male instructors at Lackland Air Force Base assaulted, harassed and had sex with female trainees — have intensified discussions among congressional leaders, advocacy groups and survivors about how to deal with the ongoing problem.

U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, who in 2011 succeeded in getting passed legislation aimed at strengthening protections for victims of sexual assault in the military, said that the recent scandal at Lackland AFB underscores that there is still work to be done.

“The scandal really highlights the absolute need for Congress to maintain its strong role,” said Ms. Tsongas, who is co-chairman of the 35-member House Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, in an interview. “Our role in Congress is to engage in great oversight to see if it makes any difference … in culture of the military — but also so, when this happens, that there is a legal process that brings assailants to justice when they are truly guilty.”

A few months after Ms. Tsongas took office in 2007, she attended a luncheon for wounded soldiers, at which a nurse said something to Ms. Tsongas that stuck with her.

“Ma’am, I am more afraid of my own soldiers than the enemy,” the nurse confided.

Ms. Tsongas said the nurse’s story helped put the issue into perspective. While the nurse herself had not actually been physically assaulted, she nonetheless felt a constant threat — and always had to be prepared to defend herself.

“To me, (the nurse’s story) really made the issue of sexual assault in the military real and showed that the statistics reflected real stories,” Ms. Tsongas said.

A member of the House Armed Services Committee, Ms. Tsongas worked across party lines with U.S. Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, as well as several concerned organizations, to push legislation.

The result was the Defense Sexual Trauma Response Oversight and Good Governance Act, incorporated into the fiscal year 2012 Defense Department authorization that, as Ms. Tsongas explained, puts “many more tools in the toolbox for victims, for those who have been assaulted and those who want to hold their perpetrator accountable.”

Previously, Ms. Tsongas noted, victims did not have access to a lawyer and could not request a transfer out of their unit — which often included the person who had assaulted them.

Under her legislation, victims can now receive assistance from a lawyer and can request transfers. If a transfer is denied, the law also requires the request to move up the chain of command, so that it can be reviewed by a higher ranking officer.

Ms. Tsongas’ legislation “basically paved the way to the subsequent changes that have happened in the past year,” according to Greg Jacob, policy director of the Service Women’s Action Network, or SWAN, a non-partisan organization founded by female veterans.

As the problem of military sexual assault has gained renewed attention on Capitol Hill in recent months, what Ms. Tsongas characterized as “the first positive step forward” occurred when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met with members of the House Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus in mid-April.

According to Ms. Tsongas, the defense secretary disclosed several “important steps” being taken by the Pentagon to deal with the problem, including creation of a special victims investigative unit to look into such crimes.

In an announcement broadcast via YouTube earlier this year, Mr. Panetta said “sexual assault has no place” in the military. “It is a stain on the good honor of the great majority of our troops and our families,” he said.

In public remarks in mid-April, Mr. Panetta said DOD is changing the way sexual assault cases are handled by requiring complaints to be referred up the chain of command for action, to ensure that the department effectively investigates and prosecutes cases, as well as educating and training members of the armed forces.

This was followed by last month’s DOD report that outlined six goals to combat military sexual assault: “true zero tolerance, effective sustainment, empowered reporting, effective deterrence, engaged leadership and evolved culture” — along with steps to achieve the latter.

But some, legislators and victims alike, believe the report is just the first step.

One major concern, according to Mr. Jacob, “is that the language in the plan focuses a lot on the conduct of the victim.”

Instead of sending a message that sexual assault is “not acceptable behavior” in an effort to deter perpetrators, the focus is on the victim and the responsibilities on his or her part to keep from being assaulted, he contended.

Reflecting on her ordeal as a sexual assault victim, Ms. McClendon said: “If you’re assaulted in the military you’re going to be assaulted four times. You’re going to be assaulted when you’re assaulted. You’re going to be assaulted when you report the crime. You’re going to be assaulted when they blame everything on you.

“And then you’re going to be assaulted when you go to the VA — because the (counselors) who specialize in PTSD or rape for some reason get some type of message that it is the victim’s fault.”

Late last month, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., wrote to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., advocating further action.

“In light of the alarming trend of sexual assault cases documented in the military as a whole, it is imperative that Congress hold the military accountable and truly implement a zero-tolerance policy in response to this problem and address credible reports of wrongdoing immediately so that justice is swiftly and appropriately rendered,” Ms. Speier told Mr. McKeon.

She has sponsored another piece of legislation known as the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention — STOP — Act, which calls for removing authority from the chain of command to investigate military sexual-assault allegations.

The STOP Act was first introduced to the House in November and continues to gain momentum on the Hill, with military sexual assault survivors and advocacy groups calling for immediate action.

In late June, a group of veterans delivered a letter, signed by 200 victims of assault while in the military, asking the House to pass the STOP Act, according to Protect our Defenders, a group that seeks to give a voice to members of the military who have been sexually assaulted.

Brian Purchia, a spokesman for Protect our Defenders, said the organization has launched a Twitter campaign called “#AskBuck”, which demands Mr. McKeon hold a congressional hearing about the Lackland sexual abuse scandal.

While Ms. Tsongas said she supports the goals of the STOP Act, she is not among its 125 co-sponsors because, she said, she is “concerned that the STOP Act may remove too much responsibility from the leaders in the military.”

“We entrust those leaders with the security of our nation, and likewise, we must demand that they provide the troops they are responsible for with a safe environment to perform their duty, and appropriate support, services, and justice in the event of an assault,” Ms. Tsongas said in an email statement. “Accordingly, Congress must provide our military leaders with the tools to fulfill this obligation and the oversight to ensure they are held accountable.”

But if the military doesn’t show progress in the ways it protects service members from these crimes and in how it prosecutes offenders, Ms. Tsongas added, a system such as the one proposed by the STOP Act “may be necessary.”

However, Ms. McClendon, now a college professor, said she believes the STOP Act is the best legislative option. She also contended that DOD’s recent plan is flawed.

“You cannot trust the military under its current paradigm to effectively treat sexual assault,” she said. “They can’t be trusted with the investigation, the treatment of the victim and the prosecution of the criminal. So why can they be trusted with coming up with a plan?

“The DOD cannot effectively police itself. We need outside intervention.”

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