Proposals to address a major flaw in the military’s policy for reporting rapes have languished in Congress.
(New York)– Every May, the U.S. Department of Defense issues statistics on rapes and sexual assault charges in the military in its Annual Report on Sexual Assault. In FY 2012, 3,374 sexual assaults were reported. That’s only part of the story. Those who work to treat and heal sexual violence, whether as survivors, advocates or therapists, say they know there is always underreporting.
In the same report, an anonymous survey of service members found 26,000 reports of sexual assault, 14,000 of which came from men. Many victims never come forward, fearful of repercussions in their military careers, and the ones that do often find their cases are dismissed or ignored, or they are told not to push the complaint.
It is a 729-page report, and costs the Department of Defense just under $500,000 to produce each year. Former U.S. Air Force soldier and rape survivor Michael F. Matthews says it takes him two weeks to read, and it’s the anonymous survey figure of 26,000 reports of sexual assault that are the most important, perhaps because for him it’s personal.
He said: “I was raped when I was 19 by three men. I didn’t know them. I didn’t realize it has lasting effects. I had trouble with authority later, and I went through three marriages. I was in New York, six days after 9/11 and it triggered something in me, and I started to talk when I went to visit a VA counselor. I lied about why I had tried to commit suicide, and she asked me tell her about my rape. That was 13 years ago.”
Matthews told his wife Geri Lynn, a clinical social worker, about the rape and together they decided to make a documentary, “Justice Denied,” interviewing men who were raped while in the military. Matthews says a lot of the focus is on the rape of women in the military, but he thinks the numbers for men are much higher, and estimates six million since the Korean war.
Fighting for reform
They submitted the documentary to film festivals — the GI Film Festival, the VA film Festival, the Los Angeles Film Festival, the New York Film Festival — but were turned down. The documentary did debut, however, at the Albuquerque Film & Media Experience, in New Mexico in June 2013.
Two of the men featured in the documentary, Preston K. Davis and Billy Capshaw, survived rape by serial rapist and murderer Jeffrey Dahmer. They reported their rapes but Dahmer was never held to account. Matthews says when the military covers up rape, the rapists become a problem of national security and of society, and threaten the family system. Even when reporting does take place, and in the rare instances when there is a court martial trial, generally there is plea bargain to avoid the serviceman from getting charged with a felony. When the serviceman gets dishonorably discharged, he doesn’t have to be listed on the sexual offender registry in his state.
Fighting for military reform is Rep. Jackie Speier (R-Calif.), who introduced the STOP Act (HR 1593) in November 2011. The bill, the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Protection Act, would take all cases of rape and sexual assault outside the chain of command of the Department of Defense by creating an independent office staffed by military and civilian personnel to handle the reporting, investigation and and prosecution of the crimes. Specifically, it would create a sexual assault database within the DoD that would share information with the Department of Justice civilian sexual offender database.
The law would ensure that victims are provided with safety and security, and reassign a victim away from the assailant. It would create a new method of reporting rather than going through the chain of command, working with military investigative organizations and different branches of the military to provide contact information for the Sexual Assault Grievance Board.
The bipartisan bill has 122 co-sponsors but is languishing in the House Armed Services Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Buck McKean (R-Calif.), still hasn’t brought the bill to the floor for a vote.
At a November 2011 press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Rep. Speier said: “Despite 25 years of task force recommendations, of Pentagon studies, of congressional hearings, rapes and sexual assault in the military continue unabated.”
Matthews says the bill addresses a fallacy about reporting rape and sexual assault through the chain of command:
“You report it. And you have to go through your commander, that’s what they mean by the chain of command. But here is the fallacy: it is not a chain — that would infer it goes up the ladder, it goes up to the next link, [but] that’s not what happens. It goes to the commander — that’s one link — and he determines whether its rape or not rape, and then he refers it to the JAG [Judge Advocate General] office, or not. And they might say there is not enough evidence of rape and then turn it down. There’s no chain there.”
Chain of command
Matthews says you also have to consider the career ambitions of the commander. According to Miranda Peterson, policy advisor and program director with Protect Our Defenders, a grassroots nonprofit seeking reform in the military for sexual assault: “Commanders are responsible for everything that happens in their unit during their watch — including creating a climate where sexual harassment and assault are unacceptable, intolerable and simply do not occur. If a rape or sexual assault does occur under their command, it reflects poorly on their leadership. They are judged to have failed to maintain a proper command climate with good order and discipline. For that reason, commanders have a strong incentive to not believe the victim or to not report a crime that occurs in their unit. It is simpler to decide that the ‘victim’ is not really a victim.”
Speier’s bill is not the only legislation to try and reform the military. In June 2013, in the Senate, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced an amendment in the National Defense Authorization Act. The Military Justice Improvement Act would have removed the responsibility for the prosecution of rapes and sexual assault from the chain of command and hand it to independent military prosecutors. The Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), stripped the amendment, changing it to read: “If the unit commanders decided not to prosecute service members for alleged sexual assaults, those cases would be required to undergo an independent review by the next higher level of the Chain of Command.” His amendment was approved by the committee in a 17-9 vote.
Michael Matthews says: “There is no chain of command, but most of Congress doesn’t understand the military unless they’ve served.” Even with the creation of Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), the cases are referred back to the unit commander.
Violation of trust
In the documentary “Justice Denied,” Wayne/Wendy May says rape in the military is like incest. What did she mean by that? Peterson explains: “When you join the military you are taught that you are joining a community of brothers and sisters in arms. In addition to working with the members of your unit, you eat, sleep and fight next to them. When a service member is raped or assaulted by another member, often someone of higher rank, they are being betrayed and victimized by someone who they had been taught to trust with their lives and of a higher rank to obey, almost without question. This violation of trust and relationship is extremely traumatic. Survivors often tell us that as hard as it is to deal with the rape itself, the retaliation by their fellow service members and superiors is even more painful and traumatic.”
When a person experiences trauma it gets expressed in self-destructive behavior, not only to the service member but to those around them, and it can have lasting consequences. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released a report on the number of suicides from 1999 to 2010 and found 18 veterans deaths from suicide a day on average in the 21 states that report military status on the death certificate. Active-duty suicides last year were 349, or almost one a day. Matthews estimates that 19 percent of those suicides were due to combat post-traumatic stress disorder, but he thinks 88 percent of those were due to military sexual trauma. All the men in the documentary said they tried to commit suicide — one survivor shot himself in the chest and is now a paraplegic.
Matthews says the military doesn’t create rapists, they arrive in the military that way, gravitating toward closed systems like the priesthood, Boy Scouts and military — anywhere where they can get away with their crimes. That’s why a policy of ‘zero tolerance’ isn’t enough.