Sexual Assault in the Military…Again and Again and Again

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Sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape are problems that undermine military readiness, reduce morale, harm retention and destroy lives, yet they persist. The issue has been studied ad nauseum with scant progress. Recently, a small group of former service men and women decided to take the fight to the courts. This brave group is putting a face to the issues.

Their stories are upsetting, not just because of the circumstances of the attacks, but the way they were treated after reporting it. Most victims of assault (85-90%) are women, and 63% of them are in the lowest enlisted ranks. The people with the least power in the military are the most preyed upon, by their peers (48%) and enlisted supervisors (27%). Male victims make up a substantial subset of this group, a statistic that is rarely reported or openly discussed.

These reports are upsetting because of the dichotomy in praising our military members for their duty, service and honor — when many of them act so dishonorably. It is not just the folks who are doing the assaulting; it is the systemic disbelief, vilification, threats, and retaliation many victims face when they report the assault to their superiors. In no other crime of assault would the victim be subject to such rude and unprofessional behavior from their leaders; the very people who are supposed to be taking care of them.

To make matters worse, in many cases the circumstances surrounding the assault was turned around to make the victim appear to be a willing party to the assault, calling it fraternization, consensual sex, or a “lover’s spat.” Even when the victim is believed, in only about half the cases is any disciplinary action recommended. It is discouraging.

The bottom line is this: sexual harassment and assault is pervasive in the military because it is tolerated. It is tolerated by the victims, who feel they cannot report it because it will upset the workplace culture — at best — or cause them to be re-victimized, at worst. It is tolerated by co-workers, who may feel it is not their place to intervene. It is tolerated by managers, who may feel uncomfortable addressing it forcefully and immediately, perhaps thinking “boys will be boys.” Unfortunately, toleration of the situation essentially condones the behavior and allows it to persist.

Eradicating sexual assault cannot be accomplished without also eradicating the acceptance of harassing behaviors; behaviors that in and of themselves seem “innocent” but which in fact contribute to lack of professional demeanor and respect in the workplace. Intolerance of any type of harassment, discrimination, or assault must be embodied throughout the military organization for it to succeed.

The culture needs to change, not an easy task, and one that must be led from the top and bought into at all levels of leadership in the military, from the lowest recruit to the most senior officer. This requires more than the “lip service” of zero tolerance that the Defense Department has established. It requires leaders who are willing to make hard decisions about disciplining or discharging both officer and enlisted personnel, regardless of rank or seniority, who do not embody or embrace the concept that “readiness = respect.” It requires peers to tell their friends when their behavior or comments are inappropriate. It requires subordinates to “speak truth to power” when a supervisor is letting unacceptable behavior slip by. It requires constant vigilance and holding people accountable for their actions. It does not require more research, studies, task forces, or committees.

The lawsuit is a result of years of inaction by the Pentagon, the individual service branches, leadership at the top, and at the bottom. It is a result of years of frustration by victims who joined the military to serve their country only to be drummed out by a system that blamed them for their victimhood. It is a result of numerous advocacy groups, congresswomen, and concerned individuals getting together to say: “We aren’t going to take it anymore.” Here’s hoping the suit forces this issue into the public spotlight where it belongs, and that public outrage over these events will finally enable the military to really be a profession of honor.