As a former Navy helicopter pilot and victim of military sexual assault, I watched with great interest and respect Senator Martha McSally’s disclosure, during a recent congressional hearing, that she, too, was a victim of sexual assault in the military. Rape in the armed forces has been in the limelight before, dating back to my own public complaint of sexual assault at the infamous 1991 Tailhook Convention, which painfully ended my naval career.
Sen. McSally is right. Military sexual assault is a threat to national security.
Scope of the problem
The sheer number of assaults would indicate we have little control over the criminal element in our armed forces. Pentagon reporting shows that a woman in the military has a one in four chance of being assaulted by a fellow service member during her career, while a man has a one in 15 threat of assault.
In the Pentagon’s most recent annual report, nearly 15,000 service members report having been sexually assaulted. Horrifically, most victims were assaulted more than once, bringing total assaults to over 41,000 per year, or 112 per day. Put into perspective, we are losing a battalion a week to this crisis. These statistics sabotage enlistment and re-enlistment of qualified members. Mission-ready manpower is diminished when the threat of assault in the military is far greater than the civilian world, with little or no recourse. You can’t sue your commanding officer for rape. In fact, you might be tried for adultery.
McSally acknowledges the retaliatory nature of her command’s handling of her complaint: “I felt like the system was raping me all over again,” she said.
Fortunately, McSally, who retired as a colonel, was able to continue serving after her assault, but most do not; 60 percent of victims suffer retaliation that is often career-ending. In 2016, the Pentagon IG found that one-third of women who report are processed out within a year, and many receive harsher discharges.
Not justice experts
McSally is wrong, however, in her insistence that commanders remain at the center of the solution.
“We cannot command change from the outside alone,” she said, “It must be deployed from within.”
Despite mandatory “zero tolerance” training since 1992, sexual assault is epidemic. Reports have increased by 50 percent at service academies in only two years, meaning about 20 percent of the officers in an upcoming class could be a victim of rape/assault or worse, the assailant. Our future commanders’ experience is that rape is rarely a punishable crime and, worse, that the good-ole-boy system will likely protect them.
Commanders have an accountability gap. A squadron commander with a 3 percent mission success rate is a failure, yet there is a 3 percent conviction rate on sexual assault cases in the military — with no accountability for the outcome of those cases within the commander-controlled justice system.
Unrestricted assault reports skyrocketed to an all-time high in 2017, yet, only 166, or 3 percent, resulted in convictions. In a 2015 Pentagon survey, 40 percent of victims reported their command encouraged them to drop their complaint.
Victims endure the worst denigration trying to report assaults, especially when it’s against a person within their command; 50 percent of victims work with their perpetrator. Merciless retaliation cannot be squelched by good leadership if the “leader” may be the perpetrator, and 25 percent are assaulted by someone to whom they report in their command.
Where the answer lies
We should use training and encouragement to prosecute, McSally said, “and if the commander is the problem or fails in his or her duties, [he or she] must be removed and held harshly accountable.”
Unfortunately, history shows us that the expectation that commanders will execute an impartial and fair interpretation of justice is unfounded. Commanders should, but are not required, to rely on proven tools: investigative experts, victim advocacy experts and prosecutorial experts for an informed, just outcome.
Empowering military prosecutors to lead the process and decide whether to prosecute cases, or if necessary, turn over cases to the relevant civilian justice systems, is the answer.
After years of painful silence, McSally bravely has taken steps to fix a broken justice system by disclosing her horrible rape and revictimization by her command.
What if there had been no fear of retribution and her command had forwarded her complaint to trained investigators, prosecutors and victim advocate lawyers without bias or command influence? This is the next step to make our armed services mission ready: Reform the Uniform Code of Military Justice and reverse the trends of a rape culture that is destroying our military.
Paula Coughlin is a former lieutenant in the Navy who now serves on the board of directors of Protect Our Defenders, an organization dedicated to ending the epidemic of sexual assault in the military.