The recent announcement by Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., that she was sexually assaulted while serving in the U.S. Air Force highlights once again the importance of preventing sexual assault in the military, the dark secret of American armed forces. McSally is advocating for legislation to criminalize sexual harassment in the ranks and ensure that each military base retains a lawyer to advocate for victims. Her proposed legislation is definitely a step in the right direction, but even it does not go far enough. The key to such an effort is transfer of the investigation and prosecution from the local military to Department of Defense civilians.
The reluctance to acknowledge the problem of sexual assault is part of a pattern. Until 10 years ago, sexual assault in the military was rarely discussed and went largely unreported. Even so, the numbers are shocking. In 2018, the Pentagon estimated more than 20,500 service members were raped or sexually assaulted, an increase of 38% over the 14,900 estimated in 2016. Only a fraction of these crimes were officially reported. Considering the number of crimes committed, quite possibly a low estimate, only a small number of perpetrators are prosecuted and an even smaller number of those prosecutions result in conviction.
The effort by the military to prevent sexual assault is clearly not working. Brigadier Gen. Loree Sutton, a retired Army psychiatrist, has characterized the military, a closed system, as “a target-rich environment” for sexual predators. The Pentagon estimates that 6% of all women and 1% of all men in the military have been victims of sexual assault.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan called the overall trend a “scourge” and demanded military leaders better police “climate challenges” within their units. However, this is an insufficient response, because the complaint still remains within the military chain of command. The military investigators in these cases usually have inherent conflicts of interest. A career at stake can, and often does, trump the rights of an alleged victim. Essentially in the case of military rape, military officers are still being counted on to clean up their own house.
What the recent scandals in the Catholic Church, Hollywood and other institutions have taught us (or should have taught us) is that once wrongdoing occurs, the larger the institution, the less chance impartial outside investigators will be called to investigate.
And the Department of Defense is enormous. That’s why rape, a felony criminal complaint, must be diligently and thoroughly investigated by people outside the chain of command. This is an ongoing situation that calls for direct action as opposed to anodyne reports and recommendations emanating from the distant reaches of the Pentagon.
The secretary of defense, with the support of President Donald Trump, should create a “Sexual Assault Unit” located at the Pentagon, composed of Department of Defense civilians, not military. This unit should be made up of disciplined criminal investigators and prosecutors with extensive experience in this field.
Here’s how a hypothetical model would play out with such a system in place: If a 19-year-old private were assaulted behind the mess hall at night at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, that private could call the toll-free telephone number of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Unit without fear of retribution from a superior officer. A qualified nurse assigned to the base would preserve evidence with a rape investigation kit. Within four hours, two investigators and a prosecutor would fly out of Washington, headed for San Antonio.
On arrival, the Pentagon investigative team would immediately gather forensics and take the alleged victim’s statement, then contact the base commander. As part of revised Defense Department policy, the base commander would provide the team with a secure working area and be required to cooperate in the investigation under penalty of obstruction of justice. The Pentagon team would have complete authority over anything related to the alleged crime. If charges were filed, the trial would still take place in a military court. Punishment for convicted offenders should include expulsion from the military and having one’s name entered into a Defense Department registry of sex offenders, available to the public.
The Defense Department has begun to acknowledge the gravity of military rape, its devastating psychological and physical impact on victims, and its corrosive effect on the military in general. Yet it has so far resisted entreaties to bring in qualified outsiders to investigate and prosecute, the most important step in addressing the problem.
In “The Brothers Karamazov,” Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, “The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.” This is the juncture our military leadership finds itself with the growing problem of military rape. To regain respect, the first step is a new model of investigation.