Pentagon's pathetic victory lap: Why its supposed military rape "solution" is just spin

New data boasts increased reporting of sexual assault. Don't be fooled -- justice continues to evade rape victims

Published May 15, 2014 7:56PM (EDT)

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently grabbed the kind of massive media attention normally reserved for celebrity scandals. “MILITARY SEXUAL ASSAULT REPORTS JUMPED 50 PERCENT LAST YEAR” went viral as soon as Hagel announced the findings of the most recent Pentagon report on sexual assault in the armed forces.

But most of the coverage failed to report anything beyond the Pentagon's spin on the data, which painted this statistic as a rosy progress report that showed victims were less afraid to report sex crimes. This misses the fact that it remains far easier to get raped in the military than it is to get military justice. When the total numbers are crunched, the bottom line is that less than 1 percent of reported rapists see jail time. And that 50 percent touted by the Pentagon is a mere sneeze in the epidemic of unreported rapes and sexual assaults..

Dissecting the Pentagon numbers hype is vital in order to show why many leaders in and out of the military are arguing that sexual assault cases desperately need to be removed from the chain of command. Sometimes the situation is akin to the fox guarding the hen house, with commanding officers forcing subordinates to have sex with them. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has long walked point in this battle against a resistant Department of Defense in her effort to move sex assault cases into a neutral zone. She has detailed the hostile environment that results in few prosecutions, with victims being punished for reporting crimes instead of perpetrators being punished for committing them. (Her bill to put contested cases in the hands of impartial professionals was defeated in March.) Gillibrand's advocacy points to the Catch-22 victims face: "The person who is going to decide the case is her boss."  Out of 3,000 who reported sexual assaults, 62 percent said they were retaliated against. More personnel reporting assaults but getting the same old treatment only heightens military hypocrisy and trauma for victims.

So what about the victory the Pentagon is peddling? The numbers the Pentagon uses to reach that 50 percent are a very small number -- those who actually reported sexual assaults in fiscal year 2012 and 2013 -- as compared to a whopping 26,000 total sex crimes committed in 2012, based on estimates from the Pentagon. Only a fraction of those 26,000 actually reported sexual assaults -- 3,374 in 2012. Many for fear of reprisal. The new study states that those who reported  sexual assaults in 2013 jumped from that 3,374 to 5,061 cases. There's your 50 percent.

Decrying a “system screaming for additional reform,” Gillibrand noted that the new report (which she criticized when it was farmed out to the Rand Corporation) does not include a total estimated number of crimes committed in 2013, as it had in 2012, and therefore  “it is impossible to draw any conclusions regarding the number of increased reports.” Even if the Pentagon is using the 2012 baseline of an estimated 26,000 total cases, the fact remains that a minuscule number -- only 5,061 -- dared to report assaults. That means “we have a system where 8 out of 10 victims of sexual assault still do not trust the chain of command enough to report the crime committed against them,” Gillibrand said. Moreover, of the 3,768 reported cases in 2012, only 376 resulted in a conviction. And of those 376, only  274 served any time. That is less than 1 percent of the reported cases.

Hagel, speaking to the media, depicted a hand wringing session with President Obama about “this huge problem” of sexual assault.  “There wasn’t anybody in that room who wasn’t disappointed and embarrassed and didn’t recognize that we’ve in many ways failed.”

Still, Pentagon officials continue to present deceptive statistics to ward off criticism while it refuses to take the cases out of the hands of commanding officers.  The military was able to take “some action” against 73 percent of the accused perpetrators, according to Nate Galbreath, the senior executive adviser for the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. That sounds like an extraordinary reversal of past actions. But that 73 percent refers to the  274 out of  a mere 375 convicted who served any time.

Recent headlines have exposed the fact that commanding officers allowed sexual attacks to go unchecked, and when top brass are convicted of sexual misconduct, their punishment is a slap on the wrist. One case in point is convicted Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, who was ordered to pay a fine but went free after admitting "inappropriate relations” with subordinates: one admitted former sex partner charged that he had forced her into unwanted sex acts and threatened her with violence if she told his wife. Sinclair said the sex was consensual, while advocacy groups have pushed back that no sexual contact can be consensual when a senior commander has absolute authority and power over a subordinate.

It took an Academy Award nominated 2012 documentary, "The Invisible War," to expose the epidemic of sexual assault in the military and callousness of the military justice system. In 2010, 108,121 veterans screened positive for military sexual trauma, the documentary reported. Fearful and alone, a large number -- 68,379 -- sought help at least once as  Veterans Health Administration outpatients. Using graphic and searing interviews, the documentary detailed years of systematic inaction from the Department of Defense to remedy this crisis.  Attempted suicides among victims were not rare.  Reminiscent of the sex crimes committed by Catholic priests, some repeat offenders were simply given new assignments and continued to commit sex crimes elsewhere. One former Coast Guard service member featured in the film had her face fractured while trying to fight off a rapist who continued to harass her afterward. At the time the documentary was filmed he was still in the Coast Guard and has never been prosecuted.

Among the many traumatizing incidents reported in recent years, victims reported having to endure running into the person who raped them who is still on active duty. Anu Bhagwati, director of the Service Women's Action Network, testified before Congress last year that "Perpetrators were promoted, were transferred to other units without punishment, while victims were accused of lying or exaggerating their claims in order to ruin men's reputations."

A secondary startling headline from the Department of Defense study revealed that more males reported sex assaults than females. Of the 26,000 service members who reported sexual assaults in their 2012 anonymous and confidential study, 14,000 were males and 12,000 females. However the percentage of women reporting abuse is much higher since there are only 200,000 active-duty females compared to a far larger army of 1.2 million men. Still male on male assaults are a serious subterranean horror, with few males willing to come forward, as one male victim illustrated, with good reason. Last year Brian Lewis became the first male survivor to testify in front of Congress about being raped. After enlisting in the Navy in 1997, he was raped by a superior officer. "I was ordered by my command not to report this crime," he said. Then, "I was misdiagnosed with a personality disorder" and was discharged. That remains on his record. "The military has shoved many survivors out the back door with inaccurate, misleading, and very harmful, almost weaponized, medical diagnoses like personality disorders that affect their benefits and future employment opportunities," Lewis said.

Aaron Belkin, who heads The Palm Center, which studies gays and lesbians in the military, stressed that such male sexual incidents are "similar to prison rape” and that “very few” male-on-male perpetrators are gay. This did not stop an obscure conservative blog from saying that the Defense Department numbers “could mean that since the elimination of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," military male-on male sexual assaults “are on the rise.” Belkin took a dim view of the Pentagon initiatives to combat sexual assaults, such as urging male victims to come forward and a review of alcohol sales and policies, since alcohol was prevalent in reported cases. “I don’t think that procedural reforms will do much to lower the incidence rate unless military culture changes dramatically,” he noted.

In discussing male sexual assaults, Pentagon spokesman Galbreath urged males to be sympathetic to sexual assaults on males. “It’s your fellow service member that might need you to step in. It’s not”, he said, “the damsel in distress.”  But by so flippantly dismissing female rape victims, Galbreath unwittingly revealed a crushingly macho environment.

When the senior official of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office can speak publicly like that, is there any wonder why advocates for all sexual assault victims fight to get these cases out of the chain of command?

By Myra MacPherson

Myra MacPherson, former Washington Post reporter, is the author of five books, including the Vietnam War classic “Long Time Passing” and her recent “The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age.”

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