Victims and their advocates speak out after military leaders balk at Senate proposal to strip commanders of some powers
During this week’s battle of wills between legislators and military leaders at the Senate armed services committee hearing into sexual assault, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and other high-level witnesses admitted failure, expressing remorse and their desire to do better over a crisis that lawmakers warned threatened US troops’ recruitment and retention.
But the uniformed military leaders – who outnumbered victims’ advocates testifying by a ratio of 18 to two – staged a unified pushback on Senate proposals to strip military commanders of their power to decide whether to prosecute sexual assaults in the ranks. Victims’ advocates say the current system stops 86% of victims coming forward and fails many of the 14% who do.
Missing from the hearing were any victims of military sexual abuse – although some gave testimony at a previous subcommittee hearing in March – and advocates and senators cited cases that they said highlighted just how broken the current system of military justice is for victims of sexual assault.
The mother of Myah Smith, 21, a former airman and one of the cases highlighted at the hearing, spoke to the Guardian about her anger at hearing General Martin Dempsey dismiss measures in a bill proposed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to give military prosecutors – instead of commanders – the power to decide whether to bring cases of sexual assault to trial. Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told lawmakers: “As we consider further reforms, the role of the commanders should remain central. Our goal should be to hold commanders more accountable, not render them less able to help us correct the crisis.”
Smith’s mother, Tina Clemens, said her daughter’s allegations of sexual assault stripped her of her career and her health. When Smith reported the the allegations, she said, the US air force failed to properly investigate them, misdiagnosed her with bipolar disorder and forced her out of the service. Victims’ groups report a pattern of misdiagnosed or disputed psychiatric reports.
“My daughter reported her rape to her chain of command”, Clemens said from Washington state. “But she was denied every single level of care.”
“I got so angry when I watched those generals on television,” said Clemens. “You get a commander who is supposed to listen to the victims and the perpetrator and be objective. But what if the victim is a little bit lower in rank, a little bit more disposable?”
Clemens said when Smith reported being raped at Goodfellow air force base in San Angelo, Texas, in April 2012, she was not given a medical exam that may have secured DNA evidence of her alleged attacker, nor provided with appropriate care. She was instead was sent to a mental health facility.
Two months after her initial report, Smith was subjected to what she described as a second sexual assault. In a letter submitted to the Senate armed services committee, Clemens said the second attack left her daughter “brutally assaulted, beaten unconscious and left for dead”.
This time she was given a medical exam, but when the results came back, they were negative for any DNA. Clemens, who said Smith had internal injuries that left her bleeding, does not believe the test results are accurate.
Despite multiple requests from her family, Smith, who was training as an intelligence signals analyst, was denied multiple requests for an “expedited transfer”, a Department of Defence programme meant to offer assault victims a transfer from their base into a place of safety, said Clemens.
“Had she been given an expedited transfer, the second rape would never have happened,” Clemens said.
Clemens dismissed the military’s attempts at reform as “window dressing”. She cited recent high profile cases in which servicemen assigned to help victims have been themselves accused of sexual crimes. The head of the air force’s sexual assault prevention office, Lt Col Jeffrey Krusinksi, was arrested and charged with sexual battery, while a soldier assigned to co-ordinate sexual assault prevention programme at Ford Hood is under investigation for allegedly running a prostitution ring.
“If there was an agency that was neutral, they could say to victims: here’s a check list, here are your rights,” said Clemens. She believes nothing will change until the investigation and prosecution of sexual crimes are removed from the chain of command and given to professionals.
“The only reason Myah finally got her expedited transfer out of there, in December 2012, was down to two strangers, Nancy Parish [president of Protect Our Defenders] and Jennifer Norris, of the Military Rape Crisis Center. These women helped my daughter, not the military.” Smith won an appeal of the medical board’s decision to discharge her for bipolar disorder, and she received an honourable discharge two months ago.
Norris, an air force veteran and rape survivor, describes Smith as “one of the lucky ones”.
“Most of them don’t have a mother who will fight like she did. She contacted numerous senators and generals. We worked for months to get her expedited transfer out of there.” Norris said that in her experience, the military exploits loopholes to deny transfers to victims.
Victim faces charges after reporting assault
Tuesday’s hearing also featured the case of Adam Cohen, a first lieutenant and combat systems officer stationed at McConnell air force base in Kansas.
Cohen, who is still enlisted, told the Guardian that he found himself the target of a criminal investigation, charged with “conduct unbecoming an officer” and other offences, after telling his superiors he was sexually assaulted and threatened.
Cohen, 29, had kept silent for four years about a sexual assault against him by a serviceman, until October 2011, two weeks after the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was repealed. The timing was important, he said, because his male attacker had taken pictures and threatened to claim the assault was consensual.
But when he reported the assault and subsequent threats to his chain of command, his case was improperly investigated and the tables were turned against him, he said. In the inquiry which followed, he said, they began investigating him.
A damning letter about Cohen’s case written by Major John Bellflower, a special victims counsellor assigned as part of a pilot programme, concluded that Cohen is being punished for reporting the assault allegations.
In the letter, dated 17 March, written to Parish, the president of Protect Our Defenders, and published by the armed services committee on Tuesday, Bellflower said: “It is incredulous to claim that this investigation was anything other than patently unfair to a victim merely seeking to have law enforcement assist in stopping harassing and threatening behaviour related to a previous sexual assault.
“Investigators deliberately used Lt Cohen’s belief that he was being helped as a victim to collect evidence against him. It would not be a stretch to conclude Lt Cohen is being punished for going forward.”
Bellflower said the investigation had “sacrificed the truth” and sent a disturbing message to other victims.
A Pentagon report released earlier this month found 62% of sexual assault victims in the military who reported their attacks say they faced some kind of retaliation afterward. The Pentagon has said the number of reported sexual assaults rose from 3,192 to 3,374 in 2012, but the department estimates this is only a fraction of the 26,000 service members who report unwanted sexual contact.
Cohen said he is one of the 62% retaliated against and said that if he could choose again, he would not report.
He said: “A key metric in how the military is doing on this issue is how many people who reported these crimes would choose to re-report if they had the chance. I can say without hesitation, that I would not have reported. Over the preceding two years, it became clear the air force fostered a culture where might makes right, winner takes all, it’s all about power.”
Cohen, who is awaiting trial in July, points out that even the investigating officer who reviewed the charges against him noted that the intermingling of the two cases posed legal problems.
Cohen’s investigating officer, Lt Col Shelly Schools, said in a preliminary hearing, according to emails seen by the Guardian: “At some point, most likely in late February or March 2012, he became the subject. However, he was not read his rights until his formal interview on 2 April 2012 … The ACC was interviewed again on 22 May 2012 as the ‘victim’ for the blackmailing allegation. He was not read his rights because OSI determined this was a separate case. From listening to the interview, it is clear the two cases are overlapping.”
Cohen said: “I watched the entire hearing on Tuesday, and I agree entirely with senators Gillibrand and Shaheen that you cannot get sexual assault out of the military without taking it out of the chain of command.”
[Female soldier via Shutterstock]