Look at that number very closely. That’s the number of sexual assaults in the military in just one year. Amortized, that’s over 50 assaults a day. In an organization that claims to have a system of law “designed to promote good order and discipline.”
As U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said to Pentagon lawyers at Tuesday’s military rape hearing on Capitol Hill:
“If that is your view, I don’t know how you can say that having 19,000 sexual assaults and rapes a year is discipline and order.”
Nor can most people. Which is why the Congressional hearing convened to focus specifically on the rape culture that exists in the contemporary armed forces, the first time in almost 10 years the topic has been examined with such official scrutiny. And while that number above, 19,000, is stunning enough, another dramatic number to consider is “only a few hundred.” That’s the number of those 19,000 sexual assaults that actually went to trial. A couple of hundred out of 19,000. The problem is clear.
While military rape is certainly not a new story, a recent event sparked new outrage, one that pushed the bounds so ferociously that Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, announced it was a “tipping point.” Here are the details:
On March 23, 2012, a 49-year-old physician’s assistant who was a house guest of Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkerson and his wife, Beth, claims Wilkerson came into her guest room after she had gone to bed, climbed into the bed with her, fondled her breasts and penetrated her with his finger. He, of course, says this didn’t happen, but this woman was one of the few victims who prosecuted her attacker. At the subsequent trial, and despite assertions of Beth Wilkerson that her husband had never left their bed throughout that night, the verdict was decided for the victim. From Stars and Stripes:
“Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a 31st Fighter Wing pilot and former base inspector general, was found guilty Friday of aggravated sexual assault, abusive sexual contact and three counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman. [... ]”
The all-male jury, four colonels and one lieutenant colonel, reached its verdict after three-and-a-half hours of deliberation at the end of a hard-fought, weeklong court-martial. At least four jurors had to agree for a guilty verdict.
Wilkerson was sentenced to a year in jail and forfeiture of all pay and dismissal from the service. A victim sexually assaulted by a military man stood up for herself and justice was served, right? Not necessarily so… this is the military, after all, with “rules” unlike those of civilian jurisprudence. And what followed after the lawyers presented their cases, evidence was put into testimony, witnesses testified under oath, and a jury came to their verdict, was a twist that seems to defy all logic. Third Air Force commander, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, decided he didn’t agree with the jury and, with the stroke of a pen, set aside the verdict, authorized Wilkerson’s release from jail and reinstated him to his former position in the Air Force.
As reported by Stars and Stripes:
“Franklin, the authority who convened Wilkerson’s court-martial and a former commander of the 31st Fighter Wing who is also an F-16 pilot, declined to provide specifics on why he overruled the verdict and sentence reached by the jury of four colonels and one lieutenant colonel.”
A written statement from the Third Air Force said that “… after careful deliberation” Franklin had “concluded that the entire body of evidence was insufficient to meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Why Franklin found reasonable doubt where jurors had not wasn’t clear. “He did look at the same [evidence] that the jury looked at,” said Lt. Col. Paul Baldwin, a Third Air Force spokesman.
Convening authorities have unfettered discretion to reduce penalties in criminal case dispositions and do so frequently. Dismissing an entire case, however, is extremely rare.
Rare, too, that a man like Wilkerson, who’d had previous scuffles with military authority and failed a polygraph test administered on the case, would be so blithely exonerated at the expense of his victim. Some say Franklin was “looking for a way to show the pilot community he had their backs.” Egregious to many, particularly women, was Franklin’s lack of commensurate concern for the women harassed and assaulted by some from that pilot community. But let’s not forget that this posse of “bros” created an atmosphere that was all about machismo and arrogance:
Documents obtained in connection with Colonel Wilkerson’s case also provide a glimpse into the fighter pilot culture of the Air Force that some women say encourages misogynistic behavior. In a personal e-mail he wrote while he was at Aviano in November 2011, Colonel Wilkerson, who had recently been named the inspector general of the Air Force’s 31st Fighter Wing, describes his own behavior in a confrontation with military police. The e-mail, filled with bravado, expletives and fighter pilot jargon, describes an incident in which Colonel Wilkerson and other fighter pilots burned a couch in the middle of the base and then barked at the police and pulled rank to get them to back down when they came to investigate.
He wrote to another pilot that he deserved an award for helping ensure “the ability for the bros to either continue their merriment or skip away without notice.” He added that he cared “about bros and traditions,” and that he wanted to be remembered by his fellow pilots as someone who is “willing to stand up to the man, flip him the most wary of middle fingers, and then daring him to touch it.” [Source]
And that’s a guy a superior would let off the hook despite guilty verdict in the sexual assault of a sleeping house guest. That was Senator McCaskill’s “tipping point.” From Think Progress:
“The military needs to understand that this could be a tipping point,” said McCaskill, a former Jackson County prosecutor and a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I question whether, after this incident, there’s any chance a woman assaulted in that unit would ever say a word. There’s a culture issue that’s going to have to be addressed here. And what this decision did — all it did was underline and put an exclamation point behind the notion that if you are sexually assaulted in the military — good luck.” [...]
“I think there is a culture issue,” McCaskill said. “I don’t think one general should be able to overturn a jury. … I have a high degree of frustration.”
One can only imagine how the victim felt.
[See video of Sen. McCaskill's interview:]
So with this stunning case as a spark, the epidemic of rape and sexual assault in the military has once more moved front and center. At the Congressional hearing this week chaired by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, countless women and men testified under oath about their rapes and assaults at the hands of fellow soldiers, the people with whom they are supposed to bond and trust with their lives. These victims also spoke of the retaliation, the often dismissive and harassing responses of their superiors in a culture where rape jokes and sexual badgering were not only tolerated, but often used to dissuade victims from pursuing legal recourse.
Former U.S. Sargent Rebekah Havrilla said in her testimony that she initially chose not to report a sexual assault “because I had no faith in my chain of command.” She told the committee that she was raped by another service member one week before her unit was scheduled to return to the U.S.
“I can’t tell you a single day that went by where I was in my unit that didn’t go by without some type of rape joke, sex joke, simulated sex play between men,” Havrilla said. “We had a sexual assault and harassment training and one of our sergeants got up on a table and stripped completely naked and danced and laughed at it—that’s the kind of culture I lived in on a daily basis.” [Source]
Others shared their gut-wrenching stories of repeated rapes, constant harassment, lack of accountability and the dismissive attitudes of superiors:
“I was raped during military service and during my first assignment—that was 1988, I was 18-years-old, it was two weeks before my nineteenth birthday, ” said BriGette McCoy, a former Specialist in the U.S. Army. “That would not be the last time I was assaulted or harassed. This is my story but it’s not mine alone. That year, the year that I was raped, that same year I was raped again by another soldier in my unit. His formal apology consisted of him driving by me on base, rolling down his window and saying to me ‘sorry.’”
“Let’s not allow sexual predators who happen to wear a uniform the opportunity to become highly trained, highly degree-ed sexual predators. Let’s make sure they are convicted and dishonorably discharged and listed on the national registry,” McCoy said.
While it is clearly difficult for the military victims enduring this systemic and predatory behavior, it is impossible for those on the outside to comprehend how an institution as regulated and rigid, as built on the ideals of integrity, loyalty and honor, could traffic in such insidious criminality – could not only allow it, but do seemingly little to avert or punish it. Writer and feminist, Naomi Wolf, wrote of the shameful phenomenon last year in a piece analyzing the award-winning documentary, The Invisible War, which explores and uncovers the shocking pervasiveness of military rape:
“The reaction to the film is an interesting Rorschach test for the country – revealing its attitudes to women, violence, sex and sexual violence. On the one hand, women in the military face rape and coverup, as related by The Invisible War, because of an aggressive patriarchal culture. That military culture is a traditional one. In this time-honored, empire-honed culture, war is a manly space; women are interlopers and thus “fair game”, or else they are controlled and exploited as camp followers and sex workers. The old boys’ network guarantees coverup for attackers; few women are present at the top to change this culture of sex crime and impunity.
“The likelihood of rape being systemic in these more recent wars is raised by the desensitization that all soldiers undergo in order to kill, as well as by the kind of institutionalized tolerance or normalization of abuse that is part of the Baghram base detention center, the Abu Ghraib prison, and other scandals involving desecrating bodies and assaults on civilians. Rape could be systemic, and more systemic than usual, in other words, because war turns soldiers into dehumanized versions of themselves. Our especially brutal prosecutions of our recent wars makes that brutality quotient even greater. This hypothesis could help explain the very high rate of suicide among these veterans, compared with other, more lawfully prosecuted wars fought before we abandoned the Geneva Conventions, and before torture and illegal detention were part of America’s foreign occupation tool kit.” [Source]
Necessary to parse and ponder the cause, certainly, but for the many who’ve been injured and humiliated, who’ve left the service because the atmosphere of danger and distrust was impossible to overcome, often abandoning careers that were meaningful and entering back into civilian life with emotional and physical scars, the salient questions are: Why is this behavior being tolerated? What’s being done about it? Who’s stepping up to put a definitive stop to the criminality and victimization?
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a survivor of the Jonestown massacre is making some necessary noise. She just introduced a bill to Congress that would disallow military superiors from being able to do what Air Force commander, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin did for Lt. Col. James Wilkerson: reverse a jury verdict:
The bill aims “to right an egregious wrong in our military justice system,” Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon. “The military justice system is rigged in favor of the assailant.”
The bill, called the Military Judicial Reform Act, amends articles 60 and 63 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, removing from the convening authority the ability to dismiss, commute, lessen a finding or order a rehearing after a jury or judge has found the accused guilty and delivered a sentence. [Source]
Important. A start. The new Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, has been asked to review the Wilkerson case. In a letter to Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Hagel stated that while he legally cannot overturn the reversal of Wilkerson’s verdict by Lt. Gen. Franklin, he would look into the laws that currently allows such action, as well as review the methodology of sexual assault cases in the military, and investigate the culture that seems to encourage and engender aggressive, misogynistic, and predatory behavior.
Let’s hope the critical mass of their efforts, as well as the efforts of others, will bring about much needed change. No woman – or man – should fear for their physical or sexual safety at the hands of their “band of brothers.”
And 19,000? That’s somewhere near 19,000 too many.