What Do I Tell My Daughter Who Wants to Serve? The Sexual Assault Crisis in the Military

Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) and Claire McCaskill (MO) have become the faces and voices of outrage and action over the crisis of sexual assault in the military. The reason why two civilian female senators who never wore a uniform have done so is because, as members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, they had to. Why? Because on this crime issue, the military's senior command has failed.

That is one of the most difficult sentences I have ever written. As a West Point graduate and former Army Military Police Officer, as much as I would like to deny it, as bitter as that sentence is, it is the truth.

Sexual assaults are notoriously underreported crimes, although in fairness, not just within the military. With respect to the services, in 2010, DOD estimated that more than 19,000 assaults occurred. In 2012, the estimate jumped 34 percent to 26,000, of which approximately 12,000 women and 14,000 men were assaulted. That amounts to 70 assaults per day. DOD derived these estimates from its bi-annual Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members (WGRA).

Such data makes it difficult to properly measure progress regarding addressing the problem because of insufficient prior data. It is hoped these numbers indicate more confidence in a reporting procedure and not an increase in assaults. Regardless, the numbers too high.

Nearly ten years of data as reported by DOD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, particularly the last four, raise an alarming question: Is the chain of command and UCMJ working properly?


Representatives Loretta Sanchez (CA) and Louise Slaughter (NY) began addressing sexual assaults in the military more than 17 years ago in the House Armed Services Committee. Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), founded in 2007, has worked tirelessly with legislators on both sides of the aisle and victims to help victims of military sexual assault present their accusations without prejudice. Senators Kelly Ayotte (NH), Jon Tester (MT), Barbara Boxer (CA) and Patty Murray (WA), and Representatives Mike Turner (OH), Bill Braley (IA), Niki Tsongas (MA), and Chellie Pingree (ME) are among others continuing reform efforts introducing bipartisan and bi-cameral legislation to support victims and prosecute perpetrators.

Coalition building, bipartisan legislation, veterans-led initiatives, a force stretched thin by 12 years of war, a database of more then 230,000 women serving in various combat theaters, documentary films such as The Invisible War and Miss Representation, lawsuits, a technology-driven global economy that provides instant information, and a concomitant media barrage that increased awareness have brought this crisis front and center to the nation.

Here's the good: Senior service commanders have put in place regulations that better protect victims and attempt to reduce sexual assault crimes in the military. These include:

• Implementation of victim support programs
• Reform of the UCMJ rape provisions
• Strengthening of sexual assault investigation and prosecution functions
• Enhanced reporting and oversight at the departmental and congressional levels

In addition, DOD-wide SAPR Strategic Plan focuses on prevention and reporting of sex crimes through training. The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act included provisions to: "guaranteed confidentiality between victims and victims advocates, access to legal assistance of survivors, document retention, and expedited transfers from military installations if requested by victims." These parameters, authorized by Congress in 2011, enable DOD to establish increased parity with existing civilian jurisdictions.

Last year Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta required a higher level of commander (Colonel and above) to decide how sex assault cases are handled. And with additional provisions in the 2013 NDAA, Special Victim Units within each military branch for the investigation and prosecution of such offenses were established. On May 15, 2013, President Obama signed an order making a number of changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or UCMJ, "that included downgrading the maximum sentence for rape in the military from a capital crime to life in prison."

Here's the bad: Absent is a focus on the perpetrator, institutional accountability, and prosecution of violent sex crimes.

DOD has not developed and implemented a policy that creates a tangible, visible deterrent to perpetrators through consistent prosecutions or other severely negative consequences to one's military careers. I am confident the military can do this. Precedents exist. For example, a deterrence model was used by the services to effectively reduce drunk driving and illegal drug use.

Despite existing data, many in the military have advocated keeping the disposition of sexual assault cases within the chain of command, claiming it erodes command authority. How?

Under the Military Justice Improvement Act, the legislation proposed by Senator Gillibrand, discretion on whether to prosecute sexual assaults and other crimes punishable by more than a year in prison would be given to military prosecutors (law professionals) instead of commanding officers whose background, and more importantly responsibilities, necessarily give them little time to devote to such serious issues as sexual assaults, which degrade unit morale and cohesion.

The military has to recognize that solely focusing on the command integrity issue and expecting the present structure to result in adequate enforcement prevention and expecting a different result is delusional.

The most telling examples happened earlier this year when two Air Force Generals overturned the court-martial convictions of two officers -- one without comment! What message does that tell enlisted personnel or junior officers when in a situation where a superior is making untoward sexual advances? I'll tell you. It turns the concept of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" on its head.

No American institution is as historically respected, disciplined, honor-bound and committed to assessments based on individual competences and character, as is our military. While many I know and served with at all ranks are committed to live and uphold the core values of loyalty, respect, selfless service and personal courage, others in leadership positions have failed to do so. Tradition and history will no longer suffice.

I have a daughter. Both my husband and I proudly served in the Army, and we have told our daughter of our experiences. I want my daughter to consider serving in the military. But how can I ask her to enter the military knowing that her chances of being sexually assaulted are 1 in 3 compared to 1 in 6 in the civilian world? Women in the military are more likely to be assaulted by another service member than killed in combat.

Sexual assault is a crime. It undermines cohesion, it degrades readiness, it affects recruiting, and it goes against the basic American values that the military defends. I recognize it will always exist, but our military has to do better.