By Angelica Kekic, NOW Public Policy Intern
One simply needs to hear or read hundreds of stories from survivors of sexual assault to understand that there is a serious problem in our military with a systematic failure to adequately investigate and prosecute complaints. If you search the phrase, “military sexual assault testimonies” you will find countless blogs, personal testimonies and news stories that tell over and over again of the horrific violations many of our service members–women and men– have suffered at the hands of their fellow service members. A second theme runs throughout these stories: of a second victimization of survivors by the current military structure that protects the perpetrators of sexual violence.
During my time at NOW, I have read numerous accounts from victims of sexual assault in the military. One such story is that of Sergeant Sophie Champoux, who was raped on three separate occasions –twice in the United States, once in Afghanistan. On two of those occasions she was raped by the same man, who stalked her from Afghanistan to Georgia. She was later discovered with a shotgun blast behind her right ear. No one in Champoux’s chain of command would protect her from her stalker. Although her death was ruled a suicide, some doubt that she died by her own hands.
This is just one case out of thousands that illustrates this broken system. When we think of sexual assault, we often only think of women as victims. While it is true that an alarming number of female service members are raped, we cannot overlook the increasing number of service men coming forward with their experiences of sexual violence. In 2012 survey, there were an estimated 26,000 reports of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact; of those 58 percent, many were men who were sexually assaulted. Very often these crimes are unreported because of the stigma that is attached to men being victims of rape.
Richard Bell Jr. served in the Air Force as a sergeant in 1969 on an airbase in Thailand. In a Tampa Bay Times video, he recounts his rape by a gang of Thai contractors who were doing work on the base. Bell had suffered in silence for years because of the stigma that is attached to male sexual assault victims, especially those that were assaulted during their service in the U.S. military. Fortunately, he has now received treatment for his posttraumatic stress disorder that is the result of the Military Sexual Trauma (MST). But what about the thousands of military servicemen who have yet to reach out for help? Are those afraid of retaliation or ridicule not deserving of the same help and treatment?
It is vital that legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) should be adopted by the Senate. The bill is expected to come to a full Senate vote this week. The Military Justice Improvement Act (S. 967) — if passed by Congress and signed into law — will make key changes in the way that the military prosecutes sexual assault by shifting responsibilities to independent, trained prosecutors. An independent, objective and unbiased system of military justice is critically important, and can only be achieved by this fundamental reform.
Thousands of military careers have been damaged by the current, flawed system. Many victims have left the military out of fear of retaliation or have been forced out by threats to their careers or their lives. Most victims don’t report being assaulted or unwanted sexual touching because they know their complaints will not be taken seriously. According to a 2012 Pentagon report, 50% of female victims stated they did not report the crime committed against them because they believed that nothing would be done with their report.
We owe it to our military personnel — here at home and abroad — to provide an environment free from the threat of sexual assault. They need to know that we have their backs. It’s the least we can do for those willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for us.