WASHINGTON – There is nothing wrong with giving credit where it is due. In recent months, Senator Rand Paul has taken positions we have both applauded, and grimaced over. And Sen. Ted Cruz, well let’s just say comparisons to the late redbaiter Sen. Joseph McCarthy have been called uncanny, and not altogether unfair, on these and other like-minded pages.
But this week, both men stood up with Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and other Democrats to fight for a bill that would radically change the military justice system in regards to sex assault crimes in the Armed Forces. A bill, incidentally, that nearly every member of the Joint Chiefs testified against during a June hearing on Capitol Hill. Even Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray "desert ox" Odierno, fawned upon by every military courtier in congress today, says "no way" to this bill, which would take the responsibility for handling sexual assault cases out of the hands of superior officers (chain of command) and into the purview of a seasoned outside military prosecutor. But Paul and Cruz, two guys who have often been accused of political posturing on their way to higher things, are ready to buck the brass and find common cause with Democrats, motivated by a – dare we say principled – purpose: their constituencies.
An Institutional Problem
It’s been a year of terrible revelations of sex abuse in the military, which many say has finally come to a head. The stories, investigations and statistics build a case against the institution, and now, it seems radical action is the only way forward.
Take the case of Aviation Commander Darchelle. The daughter of a soldier, the single mother joined the military at 30 to give her two sons the same pride and stability she felt growing up "Army." After one incident in which an officer lost his rank for trying to force his penis into her mouth, she was ostracized and hounded by rumors that it was "her fault." She took a post in Italy to make a fresh start. A co-worker had different ideas and forced his way into her house and raped her while her sons were in the other room. One son fled the home to bring security back to stop the man, who said he was merely "helping" his mother.
Despite an impressive amount of evidence – photos proving he broke the lock on the front door, his DNA and fingerprints on her bed, ripped clothing and person, he was not disciplined, she said. "The NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) agents assured me they never had this much evidence," said Darchelle. However, "he was found not guilty of anything. And the explanation that I got and I quote, ‘it’s no question that his genitals touched your genital area, but there is reason to believe that he believed that he had your consent.’" Despite a glowing performance review, she was denied re-enlistment, "which was shocking to me and my superiors. I accepted that the military was done with me."
Some might say Darchelle had a softer landing than other servicemembers who brought similar charges against their attackers. These women were assaulted and raped while on duty, and said they were harassed and rejected by their superior officers when they tried to file complaints. They were eventually pushed out of the military with "personality disorders, " losing pensions and benefits and carrying away stained records for life.
"It’s convenient to sweep this under the rug. It’s also extremely convenient to slap a false diagnosis on a young woman … and then just get rid of them so you don’t have to deal with that problem in your unit. And, unfortunately, a lot of sexual assault survivors are considered problems,” said Anna Bhagwati, director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), which is advocating for Gillibrand’s bill in the senate.
The Pentagon admits that tens of thousands of men and women in the military likely suffer from a sexual assault – which includes everything from unwanted and abusive sexual contact to rape – each year. A very small percentage of the perpetrators, according to the most recent Pentagon figures, are ever convicted in a court martial or even disciplined by the military for their crimes. Some 10 percent of accused quit the military before their cases are adjudicated.
Much of the problem, however, say advocates, is that a.) victims are deterred from reporting incidents through the chain of command because of fears of professional retaliation and social rejection, i.e stigma, and b.) complaints can be thwarted by superior officers (chain of command) – either ignored, diminished, or the victim is talked out of pressing forward with charges – before they become official.
Scores of personal stories have surfaced from all services just in the last year – and numerous lawsuits have been leveled at the military’s top leadership for "ignoring pleas for justice." The documentary film "Invisible War" rocked the Sundance Film Festival and set teeth on edge last summer. The Air Force is under yet another major sex abuse investigation. Another report this spring showed a troubling problem with recruiters as sexual predators in all branches. Sex assault prevention officers have been charged in recent months with sex assault and running a prostitution ring. Another officer was charged – a year after complaints were filed – for secretly filming and photographing female cadets in the shower at the prestigious U.S Military Academy at West Point. An Army general was relieved of his duty in Afghanistan last year after he was charged with forced sex, adultery and inappropriate relations with female subordinates. A Pentagon Inspector General’s report released last week, while overall giving the military a passing grade in handling sex assault complaints, still said there were "significant deficiencies" in 11 percent of the 501 cases (175 involving rape) it studied.
Here’s more (just in the last ten months!)
All this is enough to indicate to most thinking people the problem of sex abuse and the problematic way it is being handled within the military is systematic, beginning at the cadet level, all the way up through top officer ranks. Of course that doesn’t seem to deter the unreconstructed warmongering knee-jerks at The Weekly Standard, who have declared the sex abuse issue in the military a "pseudo crisis." But while they’re acting like some half-in-the-bag bowties at CPAC declaring war on political correctness (editor Bill Kristol was of course the guy who once said Abu Ghraib was the result of "a few bad apples"), even Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called the sex assault problem "a scourge" and a "profound betrayal of scared oaths and sacred trust." Heck, even Odierno called it "a cancer" and isn’t cancer a crisis?
Get with it Bill. Not everything has to be seen through the lens of partisan politics. That is why this week’s announcement by Republicans Sens. Paul and Cruz, getting on board with this bill (along with Sen. David Vitter, Republican from Louisiana, who already signed on) is so significant. It shows that at least some members of congress aren’t completely cowed by the brass, and that yes, trying to reform the system isn’t just the realm of meddling feminists and liberal heart bleeders, it’s the responsibility of our elected officials, who work for The People. It’s about doing what is right, and keeping the country’s promises to its volunteers – men and women – who we expect to go out and sacrifice their lives for Washington’s war policies, whether we agree with them or not.
“I see no reason why conservatives shouldn’t support this,” Paul said at a news conference with Gillibrand, Cruz, and other senators on Tuesday.
“The only thing I think is standing in the way is, just sort of the status quo,” Paul said.
After the Pentagon said this spring that it estimates there were upwards of 26,000 incidents of military-related sex assault 2012 (they assume most victims aren’t coming forward; that’s up 35 percent from the year before), and the string of scandals – two of which involved superior officers overturning the earlier military convictions of sex offenders – the Pentagon has vowed to reform. All well and good, but members of the U.S Senate say the chain of command has, despite its past pledges of "zero tolerance," proven it cannot effectively prosecute sex assault cases and in essence, aren’t taking it seriously.
"Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape because they merge all of these crimes together. You have lost the trust of the men and women that rely on you that you will actually bring justice in these cases," Gillibrand fumed at the June hearing. Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, one of the most pro-military members in the Senate, told the brass he could not give "unqualified support" to his daughter if she wanted to join the military.
Gillibrand has a lot of work ahead of her, however. The Senate Armed Services Committee killed her bill in June, preferring one proposed by fellow Democrat and committee chairman Carl Levin that would keep the cases within the chain of command and institute automatic reviews when commanders decline to prosecute a case. However, she is pushing for the 51 votes she needs to force it back on to the agenda when the deliberations over the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act begin as early as this week. She’s got 13 votes to go.
Not a panacea
Of course, the Gillibrand bill is not a silver bullet. Even military sources who would be inclined to criticize the brass told Antiwar.com that taking the cases out of the chain of command would likely solve nothing, especially when the issue is culture, human behavior and the fact that the military shock-integrated hundreds of thousands of women into traditionally male roles and quarters to wage its wars without preparing for the consequences. And of course, all cases aren’t as clear-cut as the ones we see portrayed on Capitol Hill, or in the media.
"Adding or subtracting another layer of bureaucracy at the inception will not necessarily overcome the remaining layers of the whole UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice) process," wrote (Ret.) Lt. Col. Lorriane Barlett, who served as an Army Judge Advocate General (JAG), in an email to Antiwar.com. "Meaning, even if you get more cases to court in the first place, it won’t necessarily result in more actual convictions."
"So while I appreciate Sen. Gillibrand’s zeal, I do not think her proposed solution will do much more than add more window dressing on what is an age old problem."
Barlett believes "mandatory reporting by the (chain of command) of all (sexual assault) reports and an alternate channel for victims will help improve prompt, proper handling of complaints" are essential, however. "In addition, there should be a mandatory transfer of victim or perp from the unit (if they are in the same unit), AND a victim liaison with guaranteed confidentiality."
Many Antiwar.com readers will likely find awkward common cause – for different reasons of course – with conservatives who think women shouldn’t be joining up in the first place. The bottom line is that the spirit of the age, like it or not, has opened the gates to women in the military. As this writer has pointed out many times, some 15 percent of the active duty are women with more than a quarter million sent to war in the last 12 years. We can either ignore the estimated 26,000 sex abuse incidents, the lawsuits, the misogynistic ethos and the attitudes many say are responsible for the problems, or we can encourage elected officials to buck the status quo to ensure that women – and men – are at least protected from predators and retaliation while they serve (and let’s not forget the non-military victims too).
Maybe that is the least Paul and Cruz will do. But we should give them the credit for trying.
Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos.