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Sexual Assault Prevention in the Corps – Are We Doing Enough?

FROM MIDWEST MARINES

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) throughout the Department of Defense (DoD). This year’s SAAM has increased importance, as reported cases of sexual assault in the Marine Corps are rising; in 2008 there were 244 reported cases of sexual assault, the highest the Marine Corps had seen. In 2009, there were approximately 266 reported cases of sexual assault, according to the remarks of the Commandant made to the Department of the Navy Sexual Assault Summit held 8 September 2009.
To put this number in context, DoD wide there are about 70 alleged sexual assault victims per 100,000 military members (according to the DoD Care for Victims of Sexual Assault Task Force 2007) while in the civilian population this number is 110 assaults per 100,000 persons (according to the National Crime Victimization Survey). Although the percentage of assaults in the military is significantly lower than comparable populations in the civilian world, any number is unacceptable in an institution that prides itself on brotherhood.

The Marine Corps does not know if sexual assaults are increasing or if reports of sexual assault are increasing; however, the increased reports have caused the Commandant to take action to ensure fair and compassionate treatment for victims and swift justice in sexual assault prosecutions.  The Commandant tasked the Marine Corps’ Inspector General’s Office to conduct a Corps wide survey to determine what percentage of Marines have been sexually assaulted and what type of sexual assault prevention training Marines receive. As a result of this survey, the Commandant has directed additional sexual assault training be conducted at the Recruit Depots. The Commandant also sent white letters to his commanders and his Judge Advocates providing them with his guidance in dealing with sexual assault.

The Department of the Navy (DoN) and the DoD are also taking greater action to prevent sexual assault.  The DoN is conducting its first Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program Summit later this month. The DoD launced a new website in January to help military members find information about reporting sexual assaults.

This issue is one of great interest to me. I have the privilege of serving as the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) for Marines stationed throughout the Midwest. As the SARC, I wonder if myself and the Uniformed Victim Advocates (UVAs) with whom I work are doing enough to provide sexual assault prevention training and assistance to victims. I also consider this from my perspective as a Judge Advocate (military attorney). My first contested (the defendant pleads not guilty and requests a trial) general court-martial with members (equivalent to a civilian felony trial in front of a jury) was a rape case. I tried the case with less than one year’s experience as a Judge Advocate.  It was an acquittal. I have watched parts of several rape cases tried in military courts; convictions are infrequent.

In the Commandant’s white letter he tasked Judge Advocates to “gain and maintain the proficiency necessary to maximize your contribution to the fair and complete administration of sexual assault allegations.”  He also tasked the senior leadership in the lawyer community to provide annual sexual assault training to all judge advocates. In a letter to Colonel Vaughn Ary, acting Staff Judge Advocate to the Commandant, dated 1 December 2009, the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault recommended that the Marine Corps go one step further and establish “military justice litigation tracks” for Judge Advocates to ensure that subject matter experts in sexual assault are identified. I agree that this step should be taken. Trying the sexual assault case to which I was assigned was one of my greatest challenges as an attorney and as a Marine. When the victim took the stand, it was a tremendous example of her personal courage. Anything we can do as Judge Advocates to increase our expertise in this complex and emotionally challenging area of law, we owe to some of our most courageous Marines — our sexual assault survivors.

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