The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a day-long briefing in Washington, D.C. on Friday that examined the progress the military has made in addressing sexual assault within its ranks. All branches of the military were asked to testify about what they are doing to address the problem, and though the briefing highlighted that the military has made major progress toward addressing issues of sexual assault, it also indicated that it still faces numerous challenges.
Vice Admiral Nanette M. DeRenzi testified that the “Navy remains steadfastly committed to being in front of this problem, eradicating sexual assault within our ranks and ensuring that sexual assault cases are prosecuted through a fair, effective and efficient military justice system.”
Jen McClendon, who attended the hearing on Friday, is a survivor of military sexual assault who served in the Navy during the 1990s and later went public with her assault and eventually becoming an advisory board member of the victim advocacy group Protect Our Defenders. She said she was “cautiously optimistic” about what the military had said at the briefing. But, she admitted, the military has been down this road before.
“They’ve been thinking they had a grip on this every five years for the last 25,” she said. “So although some very good answers were given today, I don’t know that they have the same grip that they think they have.”
There’s no getting around the fact that sexual assault within the military is a problem. Lawrence Korb and Jessica Arons of the Center for American Progress wrote in an op-ed for Politico, “According to the Pentagon’s own data, 52 military women are raped every day, and we estimate that more than 300 women are likely to become pregnant from rape in the military each year.” (The military later disputed this data, saying that the number Korb and Arons used was the overall number of reported sexual assaults, which includes but is not limited to rape — though other estimates indicate that broadly-defined sexual assaults are widely under-reported in the military as well.)
“[When] I was assaulted, I was either accused of being a slut, whore, lesbian, drunk or all of the above,” McClendon said, “then I was thrown out of the military with a personality disorder.” The 2012 documentary “The Invisible War,” documented dozens of cases like McClendon’s (and was nominated for an Oscar this week). CNN broadcast an expose on this problem in August, indicating many victims face a similar problem.
The Office on Civil Rights on Friday asked the military commanders to consider re-evaluating old cases because they had received “thousands if not tens of thousands” of such complaints indicating victims had been dishonorably discharged or less than honorably discharged.
In September, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta issued new orders increasing the rank of the officer to which sexual assaults needed to be reported.
But McClendon had doubts how effective this might be. “Increasing the rank’s not going to help. If you’re a sexist at 05, you’re still going to be a sexist at 06. Changing your rank doesn’t fix that.”
Many say that the only real hope is an independent commission that has authority over sexual assault claims. Such an independent body has been proposed by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) with the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act, or the STOP Act. Though the bill had, at last count, 133 co-sponsors, it has not yet been voted on in committee.
Speier responded to the military’s new policies and promise to take on sexual assault with a statement, “Obviously the Department of Defense is feeling pressure from many directions, including Congress, Veterans, members of the military, support groups, and the public. I look forward to hearing details about the very direct guidance from the Secretary. We want to see actions, not promises.”
This story has been updated to include a reference to Protect Our Defenders.
Kay Steiger is the managing editor of Raw Story. Her contributions have appeared in The American Prospect, The Atlantic, Campus Progress, The Guardian, In These Times, Jezebel, Religion Dispatches, RH Reality Check, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @kaysteiger.
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