It is difficult to adequately relay how it feels when one human being violates you through rape. Particularly so, when you find out that the rapist is another service member, your brother in arms. Even more challenging than writing about being raped, is describing the way it feels when, after you finally summon the courage to come forward, the entire U.S. military decides to wholly abandon you in your time of need. It is impossible to sufficiently explain the despair and hopelessness when you learn that military leadership has decided that your service was inconsequential compared to his. Likewise, when leadership acknowledges that your trauma happened, but completely disregards it to avoid ruining his reputation. When they decide to swiftly and courageously protect his career, not yours. When those leaders decide that protecting the system and their own careers is more important than you. When they decide that loyalty to military culture and projecting an aura of credibility trumps actual justice. The sorrow and grief that comes from this realization is indescribable, and unfortunately, all too common.
Despite millions of dollars in budget allocations and more than 249 new legislative provisions over the past 15 years, sexual assault continues to plague the United States military. In 2018 alone, approximately 7 percent of servicemembers reporting being victims of sexual assault (Figure 3), yet the percentage of servicemembers convicted of any sexual assault accusation is less than 4 percent (Figure 1). These shocking numbers exist because of lack of accountability and control military officers have over the judicial system. Landmark sexual assault reform legislation was set to be passed in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act that was voted upon by a majority and which would have provided independent oversight for sexual assault cases. However, due to the efforts of an obstinate minority, the language was stripped down. Although the legislation moves military sexual assault prosecution to an independent prosecutor, military commanders will still maintain convening authority along with control of the disposition of military sexual assault cases.
The origin of the problem within the current system is that everyone involved in the adjudication of military sexual assault cases answers to a military officer in the chain of command, and the current legislation will continue to reinforce this status quo. A victim’s treatment, rights, and future all, under the current system, inevitably hinge on the character and temperament of the military commander and that relationship to the perpetrator. There is bias and an unacceptable lack of judicial independence of the current system, and that system is stacked against the victim.
Commanders with court-martial convening authority wield disproportionate and sweeping judicial powers that have little relation to their knowledge, skill, or competence as a commander. Commanders cannot be expected to simultaneously support the victim, investigate the crime, and prosecute the accused while maintaining impartiality. Commanders should be able to focus their attention on their roles as warfighters and accomplishing the mission unfettered by the obligation of serving as a judge and jury. Sexual assault is a crime that does not pertain to military service, and thus should not be left in the hands of commanders.
It is time for the leaders in Congress to do their jobs and recognize the crime of sexual assault is rampant within the military, that the military has been unable or unwilling to adequately address the problem, and that leaving life-altering decisions in the hands of military commanders constantly deprives victims of justice. The NDAA sends the message that despite all of the disastrous incidents involving service members, elected officials do not value the lives or rights of men and women in uniform. Given the pervasiveness of the problem, its catastrophic effects, and years of unsatisfactory attempts to address the issue, it is time to take adjudication out of the hands of military commanders.
I was ready to give my life for this country, yet why does it feel like no one cared to protect me while I was serving? Is the life and well-being of a service member void when we sign a contract? Failure to pass this legislation in its entirety is supporting rape culture in our ranks. Now is your opportunity, your turn to decide if others like me will continue to suffer the same consequences because of the inaction of Congress and the Department of Defense to rectify the inadequacies that are currently in place. I ask you to hear me, hear my story, and those like me by acknowledging that it is past time to do something about the scourge of sexual assault that permeates our nation’s forces.
Erin Scanlon is a retired Army Field Artillery Captain who served 5 years in the 82nd Airborne Division and 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Erin is a staunch policy advocate of military, mental health, post-traumatic stress disorder, and military sexual assault victims. Erin has been an advocate at every level by helping others one on one, conducting trainings, advising law enforcement and military commanders, testifying to members of Congress, and even helping to inspire the Vanessa Guillen Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, which is currently on the desk of Congress.
Erin is originally from Scottsdale, Arizona and attended the University of Arizona where she completed ROTC and a Bachelor of Science in Family Studies and Human Development. She recently completed a Master of Policy Management at Georgetown University and currently works at a military nonprofit.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, email@example.com.