Why Nothing has Changed…Yet.
Along with epidemic rates of sexual assault, a large part of the US military’s problem with these crimes is the rape culture that the structure of the military, under current rules, holds in place. We’ve known for a long time that the military had this problem, but things may have a chance of changing in the near future. Recent scandals have come to light over the past few months (and days) that demonstrate the structural failings that make this situation so dire. We’ve always been outraged that this kind of criminal behavior happens, but I don’t believe it’s until recently that those with the power to change things in the military have finally started to understand the real root of the problem.
To actually make a difference, to get real, positive results, you need to focus on how these crimes are permitted to occur, not just on the fact that they occur. The three examples below show why it’s so important that the way troops report their assaults and the way the military responds to these reports- changes.
1). Lieutenant General Craig Franklin
In early March, Lt. Gen. Franklin decided to overturn Lt. Col. James Wilkerson’s rape conviction. The jury of the military court had found him guilty of sexual assault; he was dismissed from the Air Force and sentenced to 1 year in prison. All of that went away, however, when Franklin, citing his “convening authority,” decided he wanted Wilkerson back at work. One man, without any legal training, overturned the verdict of a jury just because he wanted to. And under current military rules, it was perfectly legal. Not even the Secretary of the Air Force or the Secretary of Defense can undo Franklin’s decision.
In a letter, Lt. Gen. Franklin claimed that he would have been “entirely remiss of [his] sworn military duty and responsibility,” if he hadn’t overturned Wilkerson’s conviction. He lists a few reasons for his decision, several of which clearly place blame and suspicion on the victim. *Relevant Fact: The victim was staying the night as a guest at Lt. Col. Wilkerson’s house.
“The victim turned down three offers of a ride and seemed to have differing reasons why she wanted to stay.”
“The victim had trouble identifying and describing parts of the house, didn’t remember the attacker’s mustache, and didn’t correctly describe her path out of the house.”
As Senator Claire McCaskill correctly ascertains , “This letter is filled with selective reasoning and assumptions from someone with no legal training…” Andrea Mitchell also expressed her surprise at this policy on her MSNBC show.
“I don’t understand the Military Code of Justice, in that it was a reason for dismissal, for expulsion, from the military until last year if you violated Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Yet if you were found guilty in a military court of criminal assault, of rape, you could go back to your unit. How is that possible?”
How can you have faith in a system when if your report is taken seriously and if your case goes to trial and if your attacker is found guilty, it’s still possible to receive no justice? These are structural problems.
2). Lieutenant General Susan Helms
In late April, Lt. Gen. Susan Helms’ nomination for promotion to Vice Commander of Space Command was placed on hold by Senator Claire McCaskill when she learned that, similar to Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, she overturned a guilty verdict in a sexual assault case. Captain Matthew S. Herrera was sentenced to just two months in prison, but apparently Helms thought this was too harsh. She reduced the charge to “an indecent act,” and, in an internal memo, explained her decision in a way even more offensive than Franklin.
Helms wrote that it was not unreasonable for Herrera to believe that the woman had given implied consent.
Remember, this legal decision was based entirely on Helms’ opinion of what may have happened. She also wrote:
“It is undoubtedly true that [the accuser’s] feelings of victimization are real and justifiable.”
“However, Captain Herrera’s conviction should not rest on [the accuser’s] view of her victimization, but the law and convincing evidence.”
This is stunning considering that the legal system did indeed feel there was enough convincing evidence to convict Captain Herrera. From these comments, Lt. Gen. Helms clearly has no understanding of what rape is, yet she is legally permitted to overturn legal convictions based on this flawed understanding. It is a fundamental, structural flaw in the system that this is permitted.
3). Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Krusinski
Earlier this month, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, head of the Air Force branch of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program, was arrested in Arlington, Virginia and charged with sexual battery against a civilian woman he did not know in a parking lot. He has been removed from his position, which he’s held for only two months, pending an investigation. On Thursday, before a civilian court, his trial date was set for July 18th, though his lawyer had tried to get the date pushed back to October. He remained silent in the court room, only responding to Judge Richard J. McCue when asked if he understood the charge against him.
If the people in charge of preventing sexual assault commit it themselves, it’s no wonder that survivors have heavy doubts of their ability to receive justice. It is this fear, along with fear of retaliation and fear that accusing someone of sexual assault may cost the accuser their job or their chance at promotion. As Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said to Andrea Mitchell on May 7th, “Our big problem here is structural.”
Response from Air Force Chief of Staff, General Mark Welsh
During a hearing before the Senate Armed Forces Committee on May 7th, Gen. Mark Welsh was asked his thoughts on the military’s problem with high rates of sexual assault. His response is an example of why untrained commanding officers should not be the ones responsible for handling accusations of rape. This is what the Chief of Staff of the Air Force thinks the problem boils down to:
“Roughly 20% of the young women who come in to the Department of Defense and the Air Force report that they were sexually assaulted in some way before they came into the military. So, they come in from the society where this occurs. Some of it is, uh, a ‘hook up’ mentality. Junior high and even high school students now, which my children can tell you about from watching their friends and being frustrated by it. The same demographic group moves into the military. Uh, we have got to change the culture once they arrive, the way they behave, the way they treat other…”
Civilians choosing to have consensual, casual sex is the reason rates of sexual assault are so high in the military? If only female survivors of sexual assault would stay out of the military, there wouldn’t be this problem? Just because you’ve had sex in the past and just because you’ve survived sexual assault does not mean you’re the reason that sexual assault is so prevalent in your line of work. This is clear victim blaming. This is the reasoning of one of the top officers in the Air Force. Is it any wonder nothing gets done?! The. Problem. Is. Structural.
Two Steps in the Right Direction
1). Since April, those in “high-level military or intelligence positions” are no longer required “to disclose that they sought counseling when applying for a higher intelligence clearance.” This will be of great assistance to survivors of sexual assault, who “often forego counseling for fear it will effect their ability to rise through the ranks.” Think Progress shares the story of Jennifer Norris, former member of the Maine National Guard who got counseling after she was raped.
“But then it came time to renew the security clearance she needed for her job…”
“…she decided to leave the National Guard rather than ‘sharing that information with all those people when my husband didn’t even know.’”
This exemption now joins family, grief, marital, and post-combat stress counseling, which themselves have only been options since 2008. One study found that women in the military who had survived sexual assault were nine times more likely to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, so the ability to receive counseling without fear of your privacy being violated is essential for these service members’ mental health.
2). Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Barbara Boxer are preparing a bill to present to the Senate Armed Forces Committee that would make significant, structural changes to the way sexual assault is reported and prosecuted in the military. Gillibrand said in a statement to the Village Voice, “We have to reform how the military handles sexual assault cases and takes on the culture that perpetuates this kind of behavior.”
Gillibrand’s bill would apply [Secretary of Defense Chuck] Hagle’s suggestions by amending the Uniform Military Code of Justice’s Article 60 – the law would change so convening authorities cannot set aside convictions or change guilty ones.
She described the bill further to Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC on May 9th.
“We’re trying to write a bill that will change how men and women who are assaulted report these crimes so they feel that justice could be done. And so our bill is going to remove that from the chain of command and have them report directly to a trained prosecutor who knows these issues and knows how to investigate the cases and prosecute the crimes.”
“I think in that instance more men and women will feel comfortable reporting, you’ll have a better reporting rate, and justice will be done in more cases.”