It's Time for Congress to Act on Sexual Assaults in the Military

Today, Protect Our Defenders, a human rights organization that supports our troops, announced that almost 7,000 people have signed an online petition demanding that the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Los Angeles County), hold a congressional hearing about the criminal scandal at Lackland Air Force Base. The online effort launched on and Protect Our Defenders by Tailhook whistleblower Paula Coughlin-Puopolo has gained momentum as people hear the horrific details from victims sexually assaulted by their superiors with nowhere to turn. At least 31 female trainees at the Air Force's sole recruiting center in San Antonio, Texas, say they were raped or sexually assaulted by 12 instructors.

One of the 12, Staff Sgt. Luis Walker, was convicted on Friday of rape and sexual assault; unfortunately his verdict does nothing to fix the epidemic of sexual assault in our military. The military justice system for rape and sexual assault cases is overwhelmingly weighted in favor of the criminal suspect. Last year, there were an estimated 19,000 military rapes and sexual assaults, but only 3,200 victims reported the attacks and out of those only 191 cases resulted in court martial conviction.

As the former naval aviator, Paula Coughlin-Puopolo makes clear in her petition to Congress, "our military leadership has made no changes that stop this predatory criminal behavior. How much longer and how many more of our brave men and women in uniform need to be raped or sexually assaulted before our elected officials do something to end the crisis?"

The officer who would be the Air Force's new Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Welsh III, told Congress last week that the Air Force is "not doing enough" to address the epidemic of sexual assaults in our military, saying, "what we have been doing is not working." The Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that over half a million veterans have now experienced military sexual trauma.

Seventy-eight members of Congress, along with Paula, are asking Rep. McKeon to open an investigation about Lackland, but there has been no response, though HASC Vice Chairman Mac Thornberry is quoted as saying, "My understanding is there is no evidence of a widespread problem."

So today Protect Our Defenders launched the #AskBuck Twitter campaign asking Rep. Buck McKeon how many more soldiers need to be sexually assaulted before Congress investigates Lackland and legislates fundamental reforms.

.@BuckMcKeon how many soldiers need to be sexually assaulted before Congress acts? Open a #Lackland hearing #AskBuck

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has promised to fix this criminal behavior, but nothing has changed. Every single day, Protect Our Defenders is receiving new stories from our brave men and women in uniform that have been sexually assaulted. It is very apparent this crisis needs to be addressed legislatively. Hearings are part of this process.

The Department of Defense estimates that only 13.5% of sexual assaults in 2010 were reported. And of those few that did report, over 75% wouldn't do so again if given the chance. Why? Because victims are often blamed, fear career ending retaliation, and are required to report their assault by fellow soldiers to a superior, not law enforcement or medical personnel.

Over the past year Secretary Panetta has announced several half measures to address the crisis of military sexual trauma, like bumping the reporting of rape and sexual assault further up the chain of command. But, this does little to address the problem. Many survivors have made it abundantly clear that senior commanders are just as capable of covering up assaults and frequently do. Commanders are incentivized to sweep problems under the rug as their careers can be adversely affected if a rape or sexual assault happens under their watch. And the DOD reports, "39% of women report that the perpetrator was a military person of higher rank and 23% indicated the offender was someone in their chain of command."

The prevalence of rape in our military, the failure to prosecute perpetrators and the retaliation against the victim continues to undermine readiness, unit cohesion and morale.