A Serious Problem

Most Americans are unaware of the extent of the problem we have with sexual assault in the military in this country. According to The New York Times, “You are more likely to be sexually assaulted by a fellow service member than be shot by an enemy at war.” That’s quite a disturbing statement.

Consider the case of twenty-year-old Specialist Vanessa Guillén.  Stars and Stripes reported that she was repeatedly sexually harassed by a supervisor at Fort Hood. A later investigation found that her chain of command did not take appropriate action regarding her complaints. It also found that this supervisor promoted “an intimidating, hostile environment.” 

Later, she was sexually assaulted and brutally murdered by another soldier. Her body was dismembered, and her remains were buried with the help of the killer’s girlfriend.

As law enforcement was getting close to apprehending the suspected killer, Specialist Aaron Robinson took his own life.

Specialist Guillén’s brutal sexual assault and subsequent murder brought shock waves through the Army community. It also brought numerous disciplinary actions and, eventually, new policies on how victims of sexual assault should report what has happened to them.

Specialist Vanessa Guillén
Official Army portrait of SPC Vanessa Guillén, taken in 2018. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

The sexual assault and killing prompted a Department of Defense-wide investigation. If you would like to access the FY 2020 Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, you can do that here. The report tells us that in the fiscal year 2020, there were 6,290 reports of sexual assaults in the US armed forces. In addition, 912 civilian and foreign nationals filed reports of sexual assault against service members that year.

New Prevention Initiatives

The Office of Special Trial Counsel (OSTC) was established on July 15th, 2022, by General Order 2022-10. You can view those orders here if you’d like. According to the Army, the office will be limited to prosecuting specific offenses such as (but not limited to) rape, sexual assault, child pornography, and “other sexual misconduct.” The OSTC will also prosecute cases of kidnapping, stalking, retaliation, domestic violence, kidnapping, and something called  “wrongful broadcast.” 

I wasn’t sure what that was, so I looked it up. Basically, and I’m no lawyer, it is “knowingly and wrongfully broadcast(ing) or distribute(ing) an intimate visual image of another person or a visual image of sexually explicit conduct involving another.” It is UCMJ article 117a which is sometimes referred to as the military’s “revenge porn” article.

Lieutenant General Stuart W Risch is the Judge Advocate General of the Army. His job will be to pick active duty Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps attorneys to act as special trial council concerning the crimes listed above. The new office was created following the direct recommendation by the Pentagon that the prosecution of sexual assault cases be taken from the hands of the accuser’s chain of command.

The Pentagon report on the matter stated, “Only prosecutors have the technical training to make the purely legal decisions that affect victims’ access to justice,” It also noted, “Commanders are not lawyers, and they do not receive adequate training regarding victimization, implicit bias and the impact these concepts have on the administration of justice.”

The other new initiative is the “Safe to Report” policy. Victims sometimes hesitate to report what happened to them because they were guilty of minor misconduct at the time the assault occurred. Examples of “minor misconduct” might be underage drinking, presence in an off-limits area, curfew violations, and the like. Army Resilience Directorate director James Helis said in a July statement that the Pentagon found fear of disciplinary action to be “a significant barrier” to reporting sexual assault.

Ms. Tonika Rizer, a sexual assault response coordinator at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital, tells army.mil:

“Alcohol is a common factor in a number of sexual assault incidents and as a result, victims who are underage may have reservations about reporting the assault because they are afraid of being punished for underage drinking. Regardless whether alcohol is involved or not, no one deserves to be sexually assaulted, period.”

According to the Army, sexual assault is “intentional  sexual contact, characterized by the use of force, physical threat or abuse of authority or when the victim does not or cannot consent.”

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Sexual assault awareness ribbon
Sexual assault awareness ribbon. It is made up of members of USAF Air University and 42d Air Base Wing. USAF Photograph by Donna L. Burnett

It Is Not Only Females

The New York Times has reported that, according to Pentagon statistics, about 10,000 men are sexually assaulted in the US military each year. Yet, it is rarely talked about. Victims are often too humiliated to report the crime. Many years ago, a young soldier came to me, visibly shaken and hesitant to talk. Something was clearly on his mind, but he did not want to talk about it. I guided him to a private area and convinced him he could talk to me about anything and that I would do my best to help him.

We were in the field during a multiday training exercise. We were training with a sister unit, and my soldier ended up sharing a two-person fighting position with a soldier he did not know. My soldier said that overnight, the other man started coming on to him and offered to perform a sex act on him.

If you’ve ever been in the service, you know there is a lot of joking around and locker room talk. This was no joke. My guy (maybe 19 or 20 years old) was really bothered. I saw to it that the men were separated, and we handled the matter within our chain of command.

The Pentagon report found that the actual incidence of sexual assaults on women is about seven times that of men. Seventy thousand cases annually, and historically fewer than 10% of them were ever reported. Hopefully, the new initiatives put in place by the Army will make victims come forward and report these crimes while the OSTC prosecutes the accused.