The Blog

Sexual Assault and the Military: When Will the Pentagon Take Action?

It's the Pentagon's job to ensure our troops are protected, and they are failing miserably here. What happened to taking care of our own?
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Women make up 20% of all new recruits and more than 11% of the forces deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. These women's honorable service and incredible heroism in combat should be noted, and celebrated. They deserve tremendous credit for their service and sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But sadly, I'm here to talk about a different threat facing women in the military -- a threat not from insurgents, but from their fellow service members. Women in the military cope with significant and underreported sexual assault and harassment:

"It took Diane Pickel Plappert six months to tell a counselor that she had been raped while on duty in Iraq. While time passed, the former Navy nurse disconnected from her children and her life slowly unraveled.

Carolyn Schapper says she was harassed in Iraq by a fellow Army National Guard soldier to the extent that she began changing clothes in the shower for fear he'd barge into her room unannounced as he already had on several occasions."

The rates of assault are shocking. Almost one-third of women veterans say they were sexually assaulted while in the military. (In the general population, one out of every six American women has been a victim of a sexual assault.) Already, 15 percent of female Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have gone to the VA for care have screened positive for Military Sexual Trauma. But even these troubling figures may not be telling the whole story; experts estimate that half of all sexual assaults go unreported.

It's the Pentagon's job to ensure our troops are protected, and they are failing miserably here. For anyone who followed the body and Humvee armor scandals of a few years ago, it should be no surprise that the Pentagon has been dragging its heels on responding to this threat. A special DOD "task force" on sexual assault in the military was created almost 4 years ago -- but it has yet to convene for a single meeting.

The official response to individual cases of assault is also unsettling. In 2007, only 8 percent of sexual assailants were referred to courts martial, compared with 40 percent of similar offenders prosecuted in the civilian court system. And the latest assessment by the Government Accountability Office on the military's sexual assault prevention and response programs offers another stinging critique. Among its findings, the GAO concludes that:

• Mandatory sexual assault prevention and response training is not "consistently effective."
Shortages of mental health care providers limit victims' access to mental health services.
• There is no directive from the DOD on how to operate the programs in a deployed environment.
• The DOD has not developed an oversight framework to evaluate whether the programs are working.

Last Thursday, Congress gave the Defense Department an opportunity to defend its efforts at a House Oversight Committee hearing. Instead of acknowledging the program's shortcomings, Pentagon officials directed the head of their Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) not to appear at the hearing. This is scandalous. And demonstrates a blatant disregard by the DOD for the hundreds of thousands of sexual assault victims and their families. Secretary Gates and the President should respond immediately. Thankfully, Congress has the power to subpoena -- which means unless the Director of SAPRO appears before the Committee, she risks being held in contempt of Congress, and even the possibility of jail time.

What happened to taking care of our own? Our military brass seems to have forgotten that rule -- one that I learned as a private in Basic Training -- and a rule that American servicemembers have upheld for generations. It's a sad day when one of the military's proudest traditions, the commitment of servicemembers to protect and defend one another, must be enforced by Congressional subpoena. We can and must do better.