The invisible war of sexual assault of female and male military personnel by their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines continues even as the U.S. Senate holds hearings and presses for substantive changes in the way cases of sexual assault are handled. The Academy Award nominated documentary tells the story of survivors of rape and of an institution long on rhetoric and short on change.
In 2012, there were 26,000 reported rapes in the military which is a 35% increase over the previous year. Since 1991, it is estimated that 500,000 women have been raped in the U.S. military. Half a million. At least 20% of women who serve have been assaulted while serving. This gives new meaning to “friendly fire.” One commentator compares it to incest: a military unit has a family dimension. You should be able to trust the members of your unit to have your back and your commander to protect you as needed.
Here is the thing: we have sexual predators operating in the military with virtual impunity. As one commentator noted, this is a “target rich environment.” Especially the young enlisted personnel. If a victim of rape reports to her/his commander, it is at the discretion of the commander to respond with investigation, adjudication, discipline, etc. but without training in any of these areas. The commander is faced with a report of criminal assault and is responsible for juggling personnel issues. So, say the accused rapist is your best pilot. What do you do? Without a mechanism apart from command where criminal assault can be investigated and adjudicated, where the consequences are separation and incarceration, we will not stem this rising tide of sexual assault.
Survivors tell of retaliation against them if they come forward and report to their commander: they lose rank or don’t get promoted; they are charged with “adultery” and disciplined while their rapist goes free. Many suffer from PTSD, not from combat, but from assault by one of their own.
I don’t mean to sound cynical, but perhaps the recruitment posters should read: “Are you a rapist? Join the Army/Navy/Air Force/Marines and get a free ride! The safest place to be a sexual predator!” Or “Your country needs you. But be forewarned: there is a high likelihood that you will be raped while on duty. Sign up here!”
People join the volunteer military to serve their country and to find employment. They know that they may risk their lives in combat; they do not know that they risk their physical and emotional wellbeing at the hands of their comrades. One of the cases brought by survivors was dismissed with a court ruling that “rape is an occupational hazard of military service.” This is unacceptable.
I have trained military chaplains for the past 20 years. I served on the Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence for the Department of Justice. I know officers and civilian leaders who care about these issues and are trying to change this culture. But sexual assault has been tolerated in the ranks far too long. It compromises “unit cohesion” and “combat readiness” which are important values to the military. It is illegal and wrong. It’s past time for an institutional response that puts rhetoric into concrete actions.
Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune founded the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, now known as FaithTrust Institute, in 1977 where she served as Executive Director until 1999 and now she serves as Founder and Senior Analyst. Fortune is a pastor, educator, theologian, ethicist and author of numerous books including: Sexual Violence: the Sin Revisited (Pilgrim Press, Cleveland); Keeping the Faith: Questions and Answers for Christian Abused Women (HarperSan Francisco); Is Nothing Sacred? (Pilgrim Press, Cleveland); Love Does No Harm: Sexual Ethics for the Rest of Us (Continuum, New York); and Sexual Violence: The Unmentionable Sin (Pilgrim Press, New York). You can find her blog at www.faithtrustinstitute.org.