On Veterans Day, public ceremonies honor the sacrifices soldiers make defending our country. Privately, many of us contemplate the traumas endured by loved ones who have served in the military. For women, service often comes at an unacceptable cost.
Women now make up more than 14 percent of the U.S. Armed Forces and more than 280,000 have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite their contributions and sacrifices, the military continues to be a hostile -- and often dangerous environment -- for women.
Navy veteran Ruth Moore was raped by her commander in 1987. She reported the assault to a military chaplain, but retaliation was the only response. She was raped a second time by her supervisor. Moore suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and was repeatedly denied benefits. She fought tirelessly to obtain these benefits. In 2010, more than 20 years after her assault, the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs finally acknowledged that she had been raped and was entitled to disability.
Approximately 19,000 sexual assaults take place in the U.S. military each year. Among female veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, an estimated 20 percent have experienced sexual assault or related trauma. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has acknowledged the number of sexual assaults in the military is likely far higher than official statistics show.
Despite the Pentagon's continuous assertion of a zero tolerance policy of sexual assault in the military, recent events provide strong evidence to the contrary. Hundreds of service women and men have come forward with their stories, filing lawsuits against the Department of Defense. Veteran's advocacy groups, such as Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), are partnering with human rights organizations to amplify these cases.
Sexual assault in the military is fueled by widespread gender-based discrimination, homophobia and a tolerance of intimidation, retaliation and violence. Policies and practices blame victims and fail to hold perpetrators accountable.
Justice is rare for women raped by fellow service members. Approximately one out of every 100 sexual assaults in the military results in a conviction, due to a multitude of obstacles faced by rape survivors.
One obstacle is the lack of an independent investigator in rape cases. Instead, an officer within the perpetrator's chain of command is charged with investigating claims of sexual assault and is given an enormous amount of discretion. This leads to conflicts of interest and abuse of power, particularly when both the victim and perpetrator are under the same officer's command. Commanders have an incentive to downplay or cover up sexual assaults, as these crimes reflect poorly on the unit. Because commanders wield undue influence, the military justice system has far less accountability for criminal acts, like rape, than the civil justice system.
The secretary of defense and the House and Senate Armed Services Committee chairs must reform the military justice system so professional military prosecutors, rather than the perpetrator's command, are responsible to investigate and prosecute cases of sexual assault. Survivors also must be allowed to access civil remedies so that, like civilians, they can hold their employer -- the U.S. military -- accountable for sexual harassment and assault.
An additional obstacle to justice for victims of military rape is the unnecessarily high burden of evidence to prove assault and access necessary benefits. The Department of Veterans Affairs often disbelieves survivors' accounts -- even when backed by physicians' reports.
Military rape survivors consistently report that they are met with denial along the chain of command. Rape kits are mishandled, multiple accusations against a serial perpetrator go uninvestigated, eyewitness accounts are ignored, cases are given cursory consideration, and charges are downgraded. Worse, victims have been charged with adultery or diagnosed with mental or emotional disorders, convenient ways to discourage others from coming forward. This institutional betrayal by the military to which soldiers have pledged ultimate loyalty only magnifies the physical and psychological trauma of rape.
The last decade of war has taught Americans many lessons. One is that veterans' unseen wounds are too often life-destroying. Service members who stand up against a mighty bureaucracy to seek justice for victims of sexual assault deserve gratitude and support for their efforts to make the U.S. military a safer and stronger institution. We must take the lessons they have taught us and implement reforms that protect women who have paid an unacceptable price to serve their country. Legislation that honors their service and helps them heal from violence and betrayal would be a victory in which we can all take pride.
Testifying at a hearing of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs in July 2012, Ruth Moore said:
It was easier for the military to get rid of me, than admit to rape ... This process took me 23 years to resolve, and I am one of the fortunate ones. I am asking you -- no, pleading with you -- to please consider favorably the legislation that would prevent this from happening to others.
Lauren Hersh is New York Office Director of Equality Now, an international human rights organization that works to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world.