Beyond zero tolerance

While there is much to celebrate in the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act recently passed by Congress and signed by President Obama, the rights of one group of Americans remain inadequately protected: the women and men in our armed forces who are victims of military sexual trauma. 

As the recent documentary film The Invisible War highlights, the numbers are staggering, and the legal issues involving the Uniform Code of Military Justice are complicated. What’s more, the system reportedly makes victims feel discouraged to report, unsupported when they do, and does not have the tools to effectively treat the medical and mental wounds endured by victims of sexual violence.

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The Department of Defense reports that at least 20 percent of servicewomen and 1 percent of servicemen — an estimated 500,000 troops — have experienced sexual trauma while serving; at least 1 in 3 servicewomen report having been sexually assaulted. As noted in the fiscal 2010 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, the department estimates that 2,617 (14 percent) of the 19,000 service members who are estimated to have experienced sexual assault actually reported the matter, and it estimates more than 86 percent of military sexual assaults are never reported. 

The military has typically handled sexual assault as an issue of unit discipline, requiring the victim to report to his or her commander, who has had sole discretion in determining how the case is handled and may be less inclined to report disciplinary problems up the chain of command. Victims report fear they will not be believed, particularly if the assailant is a superior officer or has a good military record, facing retribution within their unit or themselves being charged with a crime. 

During his tenure as Defense secretary, Leon Panetta implemented a number of key changes including allowing victims to report outside their chain of command and giving senior officers — not unit commanders — the responsibility for handling reports of military sexual trauma. New policies have also been put in place to allow a rape victim to quickly transfer out of the unit, and special investigative units have been created. During his confirmation hearings, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel vowed to continue to make changes and increase accountability.

While the stated policy is zero tolerance, there is still much more that can be done to fully operationalize that goal. Current measures in Congress include the Ruth Moore Act of 2013, which seeks to improve the claims process for veterans who were victims of military sexual trauma, allowing victims to utilize the same reporting and legal options as civilian victims, such as access to federal courts, and allowing female service members to access abortion care in the case of rape, as civilian victims can. Later this week, the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on personnel, chaired by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), will hold a hearing aimed at examining additional ways to improve reporting, prosecutions and lowering the incidence of sexual assault. 

Other key partners include the scores of men and women who serve honorably and are no doubt disgusted by these statistics, recognizing the behavior is inconsistent with the values and ethic of service to country that our military is meant to embody.

Just as support for the Violence Against Women Act should have been a no-brainer with broad bipartisan support, so too should efforts to protect the rights of women and men who are victims of sexual assault in our military. 

Finney is a political analyst for MSNBC and Democratic consultant.