Two Decades and Counting…

I recall quite well when the military first addressed sexual misconduct in the ranks: Tailhook, 1991. I recall because I was in the Navy, in an aviation squadron, located on then-Naval Air Station Miramar, home of the ever-popular Top Gun. Yes, the pilots on Miramar had a bit of extra swagger, so this unfortunate occurrence was more than a little annoying to them.

As is the tradition in the military, copious training ensued; most of it directed at the Enlisted sailors, none of whom were present at Tailhook. A military-style investigation was launched, which resulted in the ominous conclusion that the entire incident was caused by junior pilots who were not adequately supervised. That’s right: men who were regularly “given the keys” to multi-million dollar weapons platforms could not be trusted to behave themselves standing in the corridors of a hotel. There were also aspersions cast upon the whistle-blowing victim: she knew The Gauntlet was being staged there: she did not have to go that way. Never mind that she was the Admiral’s aide, and The Gauntlet lay on the only path from the elevators to the Admiral’s suite. Even more disappointing was the investigation’s finding that the Admiral knew absolutely nothing about The Gauntlet, though he had traversed that corridor not much in advance of the aide. And even giving him the benefit of the doubt that perhaps this Gauntlet had sprung up spontaneously in his wake, the investigation clearly showed that The Gauntlet was a long-standing tradition of the Tailhook Association‘s Symposia, and this was most assuredly not the Admiral’s first time at this particular rodeo. Once again, it became all about women making trouble in “This Man’s Navy.”

While this type of behavior was originally termed “Sexual Harassment,” there was evidence – however guarded – of sexual assault at least as early as 1996. The first official recognition of the occurrence of sexual violence in the military came in the form of the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Response Policy, issued in the wake of the 2003 Air Force Academy scandal, but the giant was not fully awakened until OEF/OIF and the increased presence of women across the full spectrum of combat operations. And while we now know that sexual assault is far more prevalent in the armed services than we ever imagined, we also know that too much of what is being done to address this violent and criminal behavior has been PR efforts and Norman Rockwell programs. Because now we know 80% – 90% of all military sexual assaults go unreported, and 62% of those who have reported the assault have been victimized a second time through retaliation.

I – among many others – was hopeful, if not skeptical that this situation had hit critical mass and something truly constructive would finally be done. However, this rather disappointing NPR interview with the new Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response director, Major General Margaret Woodward, shows that the prevailing attitudes are so ingrained in military culture that even this female Major General defends the status quo of leaving the adjudication of sexual assault allegations in the hands of Commanders – exactly where it does not need to be. Commanders are human. Some do not want a scandal to mar the reputation of their organization, or fear such a scandal will put their career in jeopardy.  And some Commanders are just loathe to ruin the career of a fellow warrior. The one important reality these attitudes fail to address is that these predators choose to commit these offenses. Year after year, the message is drilled home. By this time, it should be obvious to the most casual observer that some people will never grasp the concepts of “No means no” and “Keep your hands to yourself.”  In these cases, more training is not better; it is futile.  But it affords the painfully traditional and out-of-touch military leadership an excuse to continue to fool themselves that they are actually doing something.

Following the most recent rash of events, the Department of Defense announced a Sexual Assault Stand-down. During a stand-down, all operations cease and intensive training and re-training occurs. The agency for which I presently work decided to take a rather curious angle: instead of addressing the issue of sexual assault head-on, they chose to frame the entire day’s discussion in terms of “equal opportunity.” Once again, DoD opted out of an opportunity to “man up” and make its mess its message.

Luckily, there is hope on the horizon in the form of The Military Justice Improvement Act, introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y), and backed by a bi-partisan group of 33 Senators provides some hope for change, but in an historically do-nothing Congress, chances of any meaningful legislation being passed remain slim. This act would remove the chain of command from the adjudication process and place it in the hands of specially trained, impartial personnel. Is it a perfect solution? No. Military leaders are loathe to yield any of their dominion to civilians, many of whom have no military “cred,”  and if the system is set up so that the civilians adjudicating the cases are former military, there is the distinct possibility outcomes will be no different. However, at this point, it seems to be the best we have. I highly encourage you contact your Senators and Representatives and encourage them to support this bill and ensure its passage. Our men and women in uniform deserve the chance to serve honorably. One way to ensure this is to maintain a Military Justice system that provides equal protection to all servicemembers in all cases. This may well be the next big National Security threat, as it significantly and adversely affects the morale of our military. It’s not just their problem. It’s our problem. And the time to act is now.

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