I have never been more proud than on the day that I earned my commission as a United States Marine Corps officer. I love the Corps and everything it stands for. It makes me furious to know that at this very moment there are individuals walking around wearing our uniform, perpetrating unspeakable crimes against our Marines - and getting away with it.
Just last week, the Pentagon announced that reports of military sexual assaults have nearly doubled over the last year—up to 3,553 for the first nine months of the 2013 fiscal year. But while the Pentagon is pointing to increased reports as a marker of success for recent policy changes, that number of reports is nowhere near the 26,000 sexual assaults that the Pentagon estimates occur every year. With those kinds of prosecution rates, it’s easy to understand why a person who has experienced military sexual assault would think twice about reporting an incident that would, based on previous norms, drag his or her name through the mud, distract from her professional qualities as a marine, or make his life, at best, generally unpleasant.
It’s clear that the Pentagon hasn’t gone far enough in making changes to the way it handles military sexual assault. But Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is poised to change that by reintroducing the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) as an amendment to next year’s military budget.
Forty-seven senators have already signed on as co-sponsors to Gillibrand’s amendment. But, because of a threatened filibuster and continued opposition by the Pentagon, the amendment will need 60 votes to pass.
The MJIA, which could be reintroduced as early as this week, would help limit the possibility of conflicts of interest by moving the decision to investigate and prosecute serious crimes like military sexual assault out of the chain of command. In a nutshell, the measure would keep prosecution of military sexual assault in the military, but moves the investigation and prosecution into the hands of independent military prosecutors and gives convening authority (the ability to establish courts, empanel juries, and choose judges to hear the case) to the offices of the military chiefs of staff rather than the commanding officer. That’s how investigations are conducted by militaries in many other countries, including Great Britain, Australia, Israel, and Canada.
Let’s be clear on one thing: the United States military is not filled with rapists. Multiple studies show that a small minority of repeat offenders perpetrates the majority of rapes and sexual assaults in the military. These men and women are the poison that needs to be extricated from the system.
Why is it so hard to root out offenders? Because, if you are a savvy rapist, it is easy to exploit the system. Maybe you are a charismatic pilot and your boss could never believe that “the doting father and husband” could have committed such a crime. That’s the reasoning that an actual Air Force general gave in overturning the conviction—by an all-male jury—of a star pilot earlier this year, because the commander claimed he “could not, in good conscience, sustain the conviction,” even though he did not observe the trial.
In the Oscar-nominated documentary on this subject, The Invisible War, a female Marine officer details her inability to report a case of sexual assault due to the fact that the perpetrator was in her chain of command. Countless other survivors of this crime have reported that their attacker was a friend of or very familiar with the people they would need to report the crime to, creating an insurmountable conflict of interest.
If the enemy is serial rapists who are able to exploit the system in order to continue their behavior, what is their key strength? It is their ability to blend in and use their existing relationships and charisma to convince those around them that they are really Good Guys, allowing them to continue their attacks again and again. Their key weakness is an objective observer who can see them for what they are.
Considering this, it seems obvious that the solution to this problem is to take the investigation of military sexual assault out of the chain of command, so that familiarity and friendships can’t muddy the waters and justice can be served.
It's time to instill some real confidence into the reporting, investigation, and prosecution of these crimes. Moving investigations outside of the chain of command, while still leaving them within the military, is the biggest and most meaningful step the military can take to accomplish this important goal.
But there are other steps, too. Making the role of a Uniform Victim Advocate one that has real legitimacy and requires a specific credential, so that the position is taken seriously. Telling real stories—like in The Invisible War—instead of relying on awkward SAPR videos that don’t adequately represent the problem at hand. Increasing gender parity in leadership and mentor roles to alter perceptions of women in the military and change the mindset that open the door to many (but not all) of the military’s sexual assaults. Ensuring that medical staff is properly trained in processing rape kits to guarantee that victims of sexual assault have access to competent and qualified medical treatment and the evidence they need to seek justice. All of these steps are important in ending military sexual assault—but none of them will accomplish much if the investigation and prosecution of cases can’t be trusted from the start. That’s why the Senate should support Sen. Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act when she reintroduces the bill as an NDAA amendment to the full chamber.
Our fight is too big and our cause too noble to not take swift and decisive action. If it is painful, so be it. We are Marines. Pain is what is left behind when weakness exits the system. We are stronger than pain. We are stronger than weakness. We are the United States Marine Corps.
Goldbeck is an active duty Marine Corps Officer stationed in Jacksonville, N.C.. This piece was adapted from an essay requested by Lt. Goldbeck's chain of command on ideas for how the Marine Corps can combat sexual assault. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the United States Marine Corps.