Michael F. Matthews joined the Air Force in 1972 and honorably served 20 years, 12 on active duty. One night in 1974, while stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, he was taking a shortcut to his barracks when he was attacked by fellow service members. They knocked him down and sodomized him.
Matthews did not report his rape. In his words, "Coming forward with something like this... there's a risk involved. And there wouldn't have been any help."
In September 2001, when he and his wife Geri Lynn, a social worker, relocated to New York City to assist firefighters and their widows in the wake of the al Qaeda attacks, Michael's post-traumatic stress overwhelmed him and suicide attempts followed.
In the new mini-documentary that Protect Our Defenders released today, Michael shares his story. For any survivor to come forward is an act of courage, and this is especially true for male survivors.
In fiscal year 2010 alone, according to DOD estimates, there were over 19,000 sexual assaults in the military, with less than 13.5% reported, due to fear of retaliation. The Department of the Navy estimates that approximately 10,700 involved male victims. Of the 696,250 MST-related encounters at VA Medical facilities, 244,074 were with male veterans. Few of these attacks are reported because victims are often blamed, harassed, and pushed out of the service. Meanwhile, their attackers rarely receive just punishment. Why? Commanders have a vested interest in maintaining the appearance of "unit cohesion," a criteria upon which they are evaluated for promotion. Therefore it is in their career interest to turn a blind eye to rape and assault. Often, they blame the victim and sweep the crime under the rug.
The culture of tolerance for sexual assault and rape is pervasive in the military, and has been for decades. The military has become, essentially, a safe haven for serial rapists. While America's service members -- both male and female -- suffer the consequences.
There is a solution. It's not the collection of piecemeal half measures that the military has for years put forth to deflect public scrutiny. Many of the most recent "reforms," including moving authority for cases of rape and sexual assault higher up the chain of command, are already in place in one or more of the services. Though in place for years, they have not had a substantial effect.
The truth is, Senior commanders have always had responsibility for handling rape and sexual assault. This non-reform "reform" highlight the deep-rooted resistance to doing what is necessary to effectively change the way the military handles rape and sexual assault.
Sadly, Secretary of Defense, Panetta's recent announcement regarding "reforms" deflected the conversation away from the horrible statistics in the release of the FY2011 Report on Sexual Assault in the Military. This report clearly indicates expanding these policies from some to all branches will not constitute a solution.
While we applaud Secretary Panetta for acknowledging the depth and breadth of the problem, he must take responsibility for allowing the culture of rape and sexual assault to continue. The military must stop just acknowledging the problem and do what is necessary to fix it. The only sure way to effectively investigate and prosecute sex crimes is to require oversight and prosecution by objective professionals outside the normal military chain of command.
With that basic, unbiased protection in place, service members like Michael Matthews could expect their cases to be fairly investigated and adjudicated by qualified and objective experts without fear of retaliation. Removal from the normal chain of command is required to avoid the current inherent conflict of interest. Only then will the culture change, the guilty be punished, and rapes become less prevalent.