On February 26th, 2014, the Army announced that it has disqualified 588 people in “positions of trust,” including sexual assault counselors, recruiters, and training instructors, for committing infractions such as sexual assault, child abuse and drunk driving. The review of 20,000 people in these positions was in response to an order by Defense Secretary Hagel after the Pentagon found a sharp increase in “unwanted sexual contact” from 2010 to 2012. Additionally, in 2013, the number of sexual assaults or “unwanted sexual contact” instances that were reported increased 60% from 2012 to 5,400. One reason among many is that before the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in 2010, male survivors who were assaulted by other males felt they might not be believed or might be discharged because of their unwanted experience. Now, with the increased media attention and people speaking out about it, other services members have found the courage to report what happened to them. Although the rate of reporting military sexual assault is slowly increasing, it is still an abysmally low two in ten people with the actual number of assaults is estimated to be about 26,000.
One of the reasons survivors find it difficult to report is because their perpetrator can be a commander, military lawyer or sexual assault counselor. For example, last Thursday, the top Army sexual assault prosecutor, Lt. Col. Joseph “Jay” Morse, was suspended for groping and attempting to kiss a fellow lawyer at a sexual assault conference in 2011. Lt. Col. Morse was in charge of training and assisting Army prosecutors around the world, including 23 other special-victim prosecutors. This is at least the third time in the past year that a person is being investigated for sexual assault when they were supposed to be the ones helping survivors.
Other people in positions of power, like Lt. Col. Morse, are currently being invested as well. Last Thursday, a West Point Sergeant was charged for secretly videotaping female cadets as they got undressed. His primary job was to oversee the well-being of the cadets in his command. Brig. Gen. Jeffery A. Sinclair, one of the highest ranking officers to face court-martial recently, plead guilty last Thursday to misconduct charges, including viewing pornography and having inappropriate relations, but he is still being invested under charges of sexual assault.
In order to combat this issue, Senator Kristen Gillibrand attempted to remove the decision of whether or not to try a sexual assault case from the chain of command by introducing the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA). The power would have instead gone to an independent military prosecutor. However, last Thursday, MJIA was filibustered, 55 to 45, which means it will not go to a floor vote. On Monday, Senator Claire McCaskill introduced a different bill that passed through the Senate with a unanimous vote of 97-0. This new bill eliminates the use of the “good soldier defense” unless it directly applies to the case. The “good soldier defense” allowed the defendant to use their record of reliability, dependability, professionalism and reputation as evidence that they were incapable of committing the crime. Additionally, sexual assault victims are allowed to weigh in on whether their cases should be prosecuted in the military justice system or in civilian courts.
Both the Pentagon and Congress strive to change the culture of military sexual assault in a way that will hopefully make survivors feel supported, reduce the barriers to reporting assault and ensure that justice is achieved. I am excited to see what happens with the changes being made in the military around issues of sexual assault, including what happens to Sen. McCaskill’s bill in the House of Representatives.