by Jackie Speier
Women in the U.S. military are more likely to be raped by fellow soldiers than killed by enemy fire. I know what you’re thinking – it sounds too unbelievable to be true. But it’s not.
The Department of Defense estimates that more than 19,000 service members were raped or sexually assaulted in 2010. Due to a military culture heavy on retaliation and light on prosecution, only 13.5 percent of the victims report the rape.
The system of justice designed to adjudicate cases of rape in the military is in complete shambles. Victims are blamed. Assailants are promoted. Unit commanders – whose promotions are dependent on the conduct and performance of the soldiers they supervise – have an incentive to see that allegations are few and convictions are fewer. As a result, the overwhelming majority of cases get swept under the rug.
This abomination is not new. The Pentagon has largely ignored the recommendations of 18 reports on sexual assault and rape in the military over the past 16 years. As a result, the problem is now worse than ever. So I have pledged to speak about this issue every week on the floor of the House of Representatives until this Congress and this administration do something more than offer lip service.
While the incidence of rapes and sexual assaults is shockingly high, the personal accounts of victims add even more horror to the picture of a military at war with itself.
Technical Sgt. Mary Gallagher, an Air National Guardsman, was allegedly sexually assaulted by a fellow sergeant in 2009. He pushed her up against a wall, took his right hand and pulled her pants and underwear down, and then used his hand to rub her private parts. He simultaneously ground his genitals against her, and talked about how much he was enjoying the assault. Command’s only response was to reassign the assailant and order him to refrain from any contact with her. She was then lectured by the base chaplain, who claimed that 96 percent of sexual assaults on women occur when drinking is involved. Technical Sgt. Gallagher had not been drinking.
Seaman Panayiota Bertzikis, a member of the Coast Guard, was allegedly raped by a shipmate in 2006. She reported her rape to Coast Guard Command, who told her to keep quiet or be charged with the military equivalent of slander. She obtained photographs and admissions made by her rapist through the Freedom of Information Act, but the Coast Guard Command failed to prosecute him. Coast Guard personnel called her a “liar” and a “whore” and said she would “pay for snitching.” When she reported this harassment, the Coast Guard’s “victim advocate” told her not to pursue disciplinary action because she would be seen as “difficult.” Seaman Bertzikis later said: “If I told them that my house was broken into not one person would question me, blame me or say that I am lying, but when I say that my body was broken into people automatically feel that they have the right to judge me, doubt me, and blame me.”
Army Sgt. Rebekah Havrilla was allegedly raped by a fellow soldier in 2007. After seeking the assistance of the military chaplain, he told her “it must have been God’s will for her to be raped” and recommended she attend church more frequently.
These are just three of the tens of thousands of stories that must be told. Gallagher, Bertzikis and Havrilla are among the 17 victims who have joined a civil lawsuit against the Department of Defense. Imagine a military system so inept that justice can only be sought outside of it. That’s what it has come to.
It took four years and the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to finally establish a statutorily required commission to investigate reports of sexual misconduct in the military. His successor, Robert Gates, has yet to implement a statutorily required database that would centralize all reports of rapes and sexual assaults in the military.
It is time for the Pentagon to stop treating legal directives as mere suggestions. And it is time for Congress to abandon its role as a bystander.
Some say that we should focus on more important issues because America is at war. But it is precisely because we are fighting abroad that this problem must be tackled head on. Division and strife within the ranks hurts our ability to defeat the enemy. In addition, military service is one of our nation’s highest callings. We cannot, as a country, allow violent criminals to besmirch the honor of the armed forces, and we certainly cannot condone a system that is designed to protect the perpetrators and punish the survivors.
Lives are being ruined. Rape kits are being discarded after a year or less, often without the DNA testing necessary for conviction. This runs counter to standard practice in the civilian justice system. Victims can’t access treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder because records of their assaults are destroyed. This is a national disgrace, and the longer it goes unaddressed, Congress becomes an accomplice in these crimes.
For my part, I will continue to speak out. I will soon establish a Web portal for women and men – yes, men are victims as well – to share their suffering until our military brass realizes it can’t hide these crimes anymore.
Do you have a story?
Rep. Jackie Speier invites survivors to share their stories. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.