– Sexual assault crisis tempers euphoria over end of combat ban (Guardian, Jan 25, 2013):
The day before defense secretary Leon Panetta announced the lifting of the ban on women in combat, Jennifer Norris, an air force veteran and rape survivor, testified before a congressional panel into one of the worst sexual scandals in military history.
Norris, who was abused by her recruiter and technical school inspector at Keesler Air Force Base, kept quiet about it, she said, after learning “very quickly” that reporting sexual harassment, assault or even lewd remarks could get her turned out of the Air Force. When she did find the courage to report her abusers, they were charged with sexual assault and pleaded guilty. But they were permitted to resign honourably, with full military benefits. One was allowed to stay for another two years. That was 15 years ago.
Norris told lawmakers: “It breaks my heart to see this same kind of behavior in 2013 that existed when I joined the service. I know how painful it is to be violated by another and then disregarded and thrown away, as if you are the troublemaker.”
As many as one in three servicewomen report having been sexually assaulted, according to the defense department. In 2010, the latest year for which data is available, the Pentagon estimated that some 19,000 assaults occurred.
In the same week that the House armed services committee learned that sexual assault and rape at Lackland Air Base in San Antonio was almost commonplace – 59 victims of sexual assault have been identified and 32 drill sergeants and training inspectors have been charged with crimes or policy violations including rape – Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair, who had served five tours of Afghanistan, was arraigned in Fort Bragg on a series of sexual misconduct charges, including forcible sodomy.
The culture of sexual violence is so pervasive that women are more likely to be victims of sexual assault by their fellow soldiers than they are to be killed on the battlefield.
This week, as the 1994 official ban on women in combat roles was finally lifted, sexual violence remains one of the military’s biggest challenges in implementing the new policy. But servicewomen’s groups, advocates for victims of sexual violence and servicewomen who have been abused welcomed Panetta’s decision, saying it could be the key to address the culture.
Greg Jacob, policy director of Service Women’s Action Network, said: “By removing the exclusion policy, it is really going to cause a sea-change in the culture of the military.”
Jacob said that combat assignments and tours are seen as vital experience for those applying for jobs in the higher ranks of the military – and predicted that with the ban on combat removed, more and more women will be in significant positions of power in five or 10 years’ time.
“Social scientists say it takes 30% of a group to be represented for an organisation to reflect that group” said Jacob. “The exclusion policy sets up a two-tiered system. You have a military where men look down at women because they can’t move up in the same way and think, ‘They can’t really do what we do.’ Women can’t go into certain positions and can’t move up.”
Asked about the pervasive nature of sexual violence in the military and whether equality in the service was enough, Jacobs said: “If there is one segment of society that can get a grip on sexual violence, it is the military. Every aspect of your life is controlled and there are 15 people in the line of command.”
Retired Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Cindy McNally, a victim of sexual assault, told the House that the ban on women in combat had not served its purpose.
“We want to be viewed as airmen first, and you cannot do that coming from a segregated unit,” said McNally, “Our own history with racial integration should tell us that.”
Lauren Wolfe, director of Women Under Siege, a Women’s Media Center initiative on sexualised violence and conflict, has studied the sexual abuse of women in conflict. She welcomed the lifting of the ban.
“The abuse of women in war, whether within the military or in conflict, is a way of being in control,” she said. “There is a strict hierarchy, in which one way to assert dominance is through sexual violence and women are at the bottom of the totem pole.
“Wouldn’t it be great if they now said, “Right, now that women are going into combat, let’s concentrate on prosecuting these crimes seriously and lets make some strong statements on how we expect women to be treated’?”
Paula Coughlin, a former lieutenant in the US Navy who was a whistleblower in the “Tailhook” navy and marine-corp sexual abuse scandal in 1991, said lifting the combat ban would have an important impact on the prosecution of sexual offences, but added that change was needed in the way the military reported such crimes.
“If we really use the most qualified person for the job, you are going to get more female leadership” said Coughlin. “More female leaders, based on my personal experience, always lead to a better prosecution rate of sexual offences.”
But Coughlin, an advisory board member of Protect Our Defenders, a military sexual assault victim advocate group, said that sexual violence in the military was not a gender issue, as it affected men as well as women.
“It is a violent crime, about power and misuse of authority,” she said. “They need to be prosecuting these violent criminals.”
Advocate groups, lawmakers and victims have called for specific steps they believe are necessary to increase prosecutions of such criminals in the military, including taking the reporting of sexual assault out of the chain of command. So far such efforts have been without success.
“The US military is clinging to an archaic model where commanders have the discretion to decide whether to go forward with a complaint” said Coughlin. “By removing the chain of command from that complaint, prosecutions would increase.”
According to the most recent report by the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, 3,192 sexual assaults were reported out of an estimated 19,000 – roughly 52 a day – between 1 October 2010 and 30 September 2011. Of the the 3,192 reported cases, just 191 resulted in convictions, a prosecution rate so low that Panetta described it as an “outrage”.
Brian Purchia, of Protect Our Defenders, said that while Thursday’s lifting of the combat ban was an “incredible moment in history”, it sidestepped the prosecution issue.
“If you are a man or woman in the military who has been sexually assaulted, you have to report it to your boss and they decide whether it will go forward. Your commander has the ultimate authority. But according to studies, one in four of people assaulted report that their assault happened within their chain of command. “