Sexual assault is infamously one of the most under-reported crimes in America—only 40 percent of victims come forward to police. But in the military, where service-members must often work, socialize and live together, the problem is even more pronounced: The Department of Defense believes that only an anemic 13 percent of victims report assaults. With an estimated 19,000 assaults taking place each year, that's bad, bad news.
Back in 2006, Congress directed the Department of Defense Inspector General (IG) to develop a plan to eliminate military sexual assault and provide oversight of investigations.
So did they do it? Nah. According to a scathing government report released last week, the IG office failed to perform those responsibilities, "primarily because it believes it has other, higher priorities."
I took a peek at the office's most recent report to Congress to check out these "higher priorities." In the 118 page and 63,404 word document I couldn't find a single mention of improving sexual assault investigations.
But, as Greg Jacob, Policy Director of Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), points out, the IG spent plenty of time on these pressing issues:
- · An IG investigation determined that Allergan promoted Botox for off-label indications that were not medically accepted and therefore not covered by federal health care programs.
- A DOD senior official accepted sporting event tickets and parking from a prohibited source, presented coin awards to contractor employees, and used official time and government resources to coordinate and attend the event.
- A general officer misused government resources to support his private Christmas party in violation of the Joint Ethics Regulation.
- A general used official postage for unofficial purposes, and failed to use the government Travel Charge Card for official travel as required by law.
Huh. Okay then.
Anu Bhagwati, executive director of SWAN, says sexual assault in the military is a pandemic that desperately needs to be addressed. "Don't forget, in the military you can't quit your job just because something happens to you, even if it's a violent crime," she says. "Victims are forced to work alongside or even under the supervision of their perpetrators."
According to Bhagwati, the current military legal system for reporting and trying sexual assault cases is royally screwed. As she explains it, if a service-member is accused of assault, the case is referred to a junior officer who must determine whether the service-member is preferred for court martial. "These junior officers are not lawyers," Bhagwati says. "Often times these assaults are happening within units, so the officer knows the people involved. There's no impartiality. And this is the person who is given full authority whether a perpetrator ever sees a judge or juror."
Very few accused perpetrators are ever court-martialed. Instead, they are doled out "non-judicial punishment" and "administrative punishment." A rapist can end up with a teeny slap on the wrist, such as being restricted to the barracks for a couple of months or having their shopping privileges restricted. For reals.
Not only that, but members who do report assault are often retaliated against. "They are punished, they are demoted and sometimes even discharged," says Bhagwati. "This is not the exception—it happens all the time."
Considering that one of the IG's four stated priorities is to "preserve and enhance the all-volunteer force," you'd think protecting service-members from sexual assault and ensuring perpetrators are punished would be an important goal, but hey. Who has time for that when there are private Christmas parties to investigate?!
Melissa Jeltsen is a writer and recent transplant to New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @quasimado.