By official estimates, 26,000 people are sexually assaulted in the U.S. military each year. That comes out to 71 people every day. It’s an epidemic that’s been widely reported in the news.
As if that weren’t bad enough, most of the assaults go unreported – only 11 percent of assault victims ended up filing reports last year (3,374). Studies show that those who do not report the assault cite fears of retaliation and a concern that nothing will be done.
Leaders in Congress are trying to change that this week with the Military Justice Improvement Act.
Right now, if a woman is sexually assaulted in the military, her case is evaluated by a commanding officer. This officer decides whether to bring the case to trial. Once it has been tried, the same commanding officer is responsible for enforcing the consequences. That’s called “convening authority.”
That’s a huge incentive to sweep sexual assault under the rug — a commanding officer decides a case should be prosecuted risks damaging his own unit’s reputation.
I’ll admit that I don’t know much about the military chain of command, and a lot of the terms used in this debate have been new to me. But I do know that victims of sexual assault should be given support and protection, and that perpetrators should have consequences. If this isn’t working, we should end it.
The Military Justice Improvement Act is bipartisan legislation that’s currently up for debate in the Senate. It would take the convening authority for serious crimes such as sexual assault and place them with independently trained prosecutors — people who are looking for the truth, rather than the reputation of any particular group of soldiers.
I was (not?) surprised to learn that the United States is just about the only country that still lets its commanders make decisions about trying sexual assault cases — a practice that dates from the 18th century. Countries such as Britain, Canada, Israel, Germany, Norway and Australia have already done away with it.
Right now, 74 percent of women who are assaulted say that they experienced barriers to reporting it. The same is true for 60 percent of men. Sixty-four percent of victims who do report their assaults say they have experienced some form of professional, social, and/or administrative retaliation. Those numbers should be zero.
I believe strongly that no one — soldier or civilian — should be subject to sexual violence in his or her place of employment. When these incidents do happen, there need to be consequences. That’s why I’m supporting the Military Justice Improvement Act — and I hope you will, too.
Janelle Tupper is campaigns assistant for Sojourners.
Photo: Audrey Burmakin/Shutterstock