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Military no friend to sexual assault victims

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor

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  • Correction

    A May 5 “Feedback” piece from Wilmington film commission chairman Bill Vassar incorrectly said a news story that ran in the Observer on May 2 failed to note that N.C. film, TV and commercial productions employed about 14,000 people last year. The story did, in fact, note that.



As a girl of 16, I left a party with a friend – a male friend – who agreed to drop me off at my house to meet my midnight curfew. My house was only a few blocks away, and I trusted him to get me there safely. But as I got in the car, a couple of his male friends got in too. And when he drove off, it was not in the direction of my house.

Soon talk turned to them having a little fun with me – and the friend I trusted became someone I didn’t know, someone ready to betray my trust. I was lucky. My belligerent response that what they were contemplating was a crime, that I would press charges against every single one, and that my squeaky clean reputation would make me more believable than them in court, scared them enough that they changed course and dropped me at my door.

I thought about that incident when I read the new report about sexual assaults in the military. The women – and men – who’ve been the victims of sex crimes in the military must feel a lot like I did – abandoned by a trusted friend when they needed them the most. In their case, that friend is the military itself. It’s the system of military justice – if in these cases it can be called that – and those who purport to lead our armed forces.

Consider these troubling statistics from a Pentagon report this week of a Department of Defense survey of military men and women about sexual assaults:

• Military sexual assaults jumped to 26,000 last year – up 7,000 since 2010. That’s more than a third higher.

• Just 3,374 sex crimes were actually reported – that’s a little more than 1 in 10.

Of those, only 2,610 were completely investigated – and then just 594 recommended for court-martial, 302 of which went to trial and 238 got convictions.

It’s shouldn’t be surprising that so few sex assaults actually get reported. Sixty-two percent of those who’ve stepped forward became victims of retaliation. For more than a quarter, an allegation of rape has resulted in rank reduction, pay decrease and administrative discharge. One woman who filed a lawsuit against the Pentagon – former Marine Private Stephanie Schroeder – said she was forced to work alongside her attacker for a year after she charged he raped her.

The Pentagon report said about 1 in 4 of those who were assaulted and received medical care declined to press charges, an indicator of the victims’ fear of retribution, military officials noted.

Sexual assault victims are probably even more wary of coming forward following reports that two military leaders recently reversed jury convictions of sexual assaulters. In February, an Air Force general threw out the conviction of a star fighter pilot. Another general has had her promotion blocked recently after it was learned she pardoned an Air Force officer convicted by a jury of aggravated sexual assault. Neither general was a judge and neither observed either trial.

As disconcerting for those who’ve been victims is the way military leaders have been addressing this issue. Sexual assault is hardly ever talked about and portrayed as what it is – a crime, a serious and often violent one, where perpetrators will be pursued aggressively and the punishment will be stiff. Instead, it is often alluded to as a misunderstanding.

Take last month’s military campaign during “Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month.” The Air Force distributed items like breath mints displaying stickers saying “No means no!”, hand sanitizers with the words, “Keep ur hands 2 yourself”, and advice like “stay sober” and “match your body language to your words – don’t laugh and smile while saying ‘no’.”

A recent video from one N.C. base had military commanders also giving this advice, among other things, for preventing assaults: “Real women intervene before their friends do something stupid.”

Couple all that with the recent arrest of the head of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention unit for sexual assault and victims can’t help but wonder how serious military leaders are about tackling military sexual assaults.

Sadly, even this disturbing report has not moved military leaders to embrace the aggressive action needed to effectively tackle these horrible crimes. At hearings on the issue, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III almost seemed resigned, blaming it on “a society where this occurs,” noting that “some of it is the hookup mentality of junior high even and high school students now.”

Huh?

Thankfully, a lot of women in Congress including Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., do get the seriousness of this matter. All have crafted or are involved in crafting legislation to protect victims and assist in the prosecution of perpetrators. Boxer’s and Gillibrand’s bill would take away the authority of military commanders to set aside convictions or change guilty ones. It would also add independent prosecutors to decide whether a case goes to a court-martial in the first place. Those are wise moves given the penchant of far too many chain-of-command officers to sideline these cases or shamefully throw out jury verdicts.

And President Obama seems to get the seriousness too. This week, he encouraged victims to report the crimes, noting that as commander-in-chief, he’s “got their backs.” Perpetrators will be “held accountable,” he said. “Prosecuted, stripped out of their positions, court martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period. It’s not acceptable.”

It is unacceptable. It’s also a vicious crime. When military leaders turn a blind eye to these criminals, they aid and abet the crime. Those who serve this country deserve better. They’ve earned and deserve a trusted friend.

Fannie Flono is an Observer associate editor. Write to her at the Observer, P.O. Box 30308, Charlotte, N.C. 28230-0308. Email her at fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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