Over the summer, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James F. Amos hosted a dinner with a handful of lawmakers to discuss a hidden epidemic of violence in the military: 19,000 servicemembers are estimated to be victims of rape or sexual assault each year.
The high-level gathering was a signal of how seriously the military brass is now taking the problem of sexual assaults. But the dinner guests were quickly reminded of just how taboo the subject remains for much of the armed forces. Someone mentioned the low reporting rates — only 2,723 military victims came forward to formally disclose assaults in 2011. Amos’ wife turned to a high-ranking female officer at the table and asked what she would do if she were assaulted. Would she report the crime?
“With the commandant present and [three] members of Congress, she honestly answered no,” recalls Ohio Republican Michael R. Turner, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Women “perceive that it can affect someone’s career in the military negatively if they report they’re the victim of the crime,” Turner says. “And that’s just wrong.”
Turner’s outrage is widely shared in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. That consensus breaks down, however, over how best to legislate and implement a sweeping cultural change in an institution as large and complex as the U.S. military.
The debate rests on the question of whether the armed forces — where loyalty and fraternity are deeply ingrained values and resistance to outside interference is the norm — can remake itself and, most important, police itself on matters of sexual violence. Both sides acknowledge that it isn’t yet clear whether the military is at a true tipping point such that a change in culture is systematically spreading down through the services’ ranks.