Suing the Secretary(s) of Defense: Drawing Attention to Sexual Violence in the Military

By Renata Maniaci, Government Relations Intern

On Feb. 15, 17 veteran and active-duty servicemembers filed a lawsuit against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The action, headed by D.C. attorney Susan Burke, seeks monetary damages to compensate the plaintiffs for being raped, sexually assaulted and harassed while serving in the United States military. The suit charges that despite ample evidence of a pervasive culture of sexual assault and rape (primarily against women) in the military, both Gates and his predecessor, Rumsfeld, ran institutions where perpetrators were promoted and victims were threatened or otherwise forced to keep silent.

The National Press Club held a press conference today in which the case’s lead investigator, Keith Rohman, Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal, and Service Women’s Action Network Executive Director Anuradha Bhagwati each gave statements. Three of the 17 plaintiffs also took questions from the press during a Q&A session.

Seeing these women, hearing their thoughtful responses, and later reading their stories in the lawsuit, was extremely powerful. I became so enraged and upset while reading their case details that I had to take a break. That these survivors, two of them men, willingly joined the military to serve their country, only to be sexually assaulted by their colleagues, then repeatedly ordered by their chain of command (in many cases, the same men who assaulted them) to say and do nothing, is inexcusable.

One reporter asked the three women survivors on the panel if they thought of themselves as heroes. They all unequivocally replied that they did not see themselves or what they were doing as heroic, but rather, that their attorneys, and the people and organizations supporting them were the real heroes. I disagree. These people have been through living hell, wrought with threats, demotions and other-than-honorable discharges for trying to seek justice in a system that failed to protect them. Their continued actions are heroic.

To quote Jesse Ellison at the Daily Beast: “…while the suit seeks significant monetary damages, a payout is neither expected nor entirely the point.” Rather, the point is to draw attention to this extreme misuse of military privilege and utter disregard for constitutional rights, in hopes that Congress will take notice, and move to make changes at a federal level.

How can the United States be perceived as the greatest military power on earth when it allows the rape and humiliation of its own servicemembers by other military personnel to go unpunished? It is shameful. And it is a threat to our national security, eroding the military from within.

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