How Chuck Hagel Intends To Address Rampant Sexual Assault In The Military

Women soldiers suffer sexual assault in higher percentages than female civilians; @LAProgressive

Women soldiers suffer sexual assault in higher percentages than female civilians; @LAProgressive

In the military, senior commanders have the power to overturn a verdict handed down by a jury in a court-martial, and to reduce or eliminate sentences altogether. That practice has brought a lot of criticism to the military, particularly when it comes to the way sexual assault cases are handled. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel proposes to change that by requiring written explanations for a senior commander’s decision to make such changes before the case can be appealed, which is something that has never been done before.

The move comes just after a case in which Air Force Lt. General Craig Franklin decided to grant clemency to a pilot who’d been accused and convicted of sexually assaulting a woman who slept in his guest bedroom. He gave no explanation for why, and advocacy groups and lawmakers are very angry about that decision.

These kinds of decisions result in a lack of justice for the victims, and can easily lead to victims refusing to come forward. Sexual assault in the military is at epidemic levels, and is not handled through the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) the way it is through the civilian law system. Commanders don’t just decide whether to dismiss verdicts or modify sentences, but they are also in charge of initial investigations and have the power to decide whether criminal charges are warranted.

In a sexual assault case, the victim’s own commander, and their attacker’s commander, decide what to do. According to the Department of Defense, of an estimated 19,000 assaults in 2011, only 3,192 were reported. That’s roughly 17%, compared to 46% in the general population, from 2006-2010. People naturally tend towards keeping quiet when they believe coming forward—about anything—won’t work.

One of the largest and most famous military sexual assault cases, the Tailhook scandal of the early 90s, demonstrates what can happen to a woman who decides to come forward. Lt. Paula Coughlin, the first woman to file complaints about being molested and assaulted during the 1991 Tailhook Association convention in Las Vegas, resigned her commission due to the ongoing negative treatment she received following her complaints.

Initially, the investigation conducted by Rear Admiral Duvall Williams concluded that the incident was the result of men in the lower ranks merely behaving poorly, and that no higher-level officers or senior officers were involved or implicated. Admiral Williams and his commander later resigned after the acting inspector general for the DoD, Derek Vander Schaaf, found that their investigation had failed to sufficiently look into the matter at all.

Tailhook, which should have served as a much larger wake up call for the entire military, instead drew criticism for the fact that it more or less ruined the careers of more than 300 Navy and Marine pilots and officers, which is shown by another, more recent case involving multiple instructors and women at Lackland Air Force base, for which not one victim was asked to testify to Congress. Coughlin, who now works as an advocate for sexual assault victims in the military, said, “Since Tailhook we have seen repeated scandals, military leadership investigating itself, congressional hearings, reforms announced, training days ordered, laws passed.” She believes that, without victims’ testimony, the whole issue is likely to be sidestepped again, as it has been countless times before, including during Tailhook itself.

The case of one officer’s conviction and dismissal being overturned by his commander may spur changes in the military; however, if huge incidents like Tailhook didn’t, why would the case of one officer and one victim?

That’s where Chuck Hagel comes in. The military, despite its apparent insistence that it takes sexual assault extremely seriously, is not likely to change its ways of its own accord anytime soon. Hagel’s proposal may not go far enough, however, though it is a major step in the right direction. Should this become law, commanders would still be in charge of investigating allegations, so the potential still exists for legitimate cases to never make it to trial.

Furthermore, a mere written explanation for changing a sentence or overturning a conviction will be of no comfort to the victims. It’s unclear right now whether the written explanation can be approved or rejected, with a rejection restoring the original ruling and sentence. The UCMJ and the civilian justice system are vastly different, with the civilian system requiring adjudication of cases by uninvolved persons. The UCMJ has no such requirement, and Hagel’s proposal will not really change that.

Rika Christensen is an experienced writer and loves debating politics. Engage with her and see more of her work by following her on Facebook and Twitter, and check out her blog, They Need To Go.