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Big Story

Is Sexual Assault in the Military Making Us Unsafe?

We Are Not Government Issued mural in Brooklyn, NY via Flickr user Rebecca Wilson.

There are nearly 1.5 million people on active duty in the U.S. armed forces, and more than 850,000 in the reserves. And last year, an estimated 26,000 service members were sexually assaulted.

Those numbers, which come from a Pentagon survey, are shocking enough on their own. What's more, the number rose quite dramatically very quickly, from 19,000 in 2010. And on top of that, 90% of those surveyed said they'd kept quiet about being assaulted.

Oh, and get this: The officer in charge of the Air Force's sexual assault prevention program was arrested earlier this week for - you guessed it - sexual assault.

According to a police report, the officer, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, "approached a female victim in a parking lot and grabbed her breasts and buttocks."

At a hearing about the problem in the Senate yesterday, one general blamed it on "hookup culture." Really? Senator Kirsten Gillibrand wasn't having any of that.

Why is sexual assault such a huge problem in the military? Is it a new problem? And what can be done about it?

What is sexual assault?

An informational poster about sexual assault awareness month. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Pentagon survey found that 6.1% of women and 1.2% of men in the military were the victims of some form of sexual assault while active.

The Department of Justice defines sexual assault as

"Sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient."

This can include any kind of unwanted sexual contact, from fondling to intercourse. The Pentagon uses the term sexual assault to include:

  • Rape.
  • Sexual assault.
  • Nonconsensual sodomy.
  • Aggravated sexual assault.
  • Abusive sexual contact.
  • Attempts to commit any of these offenses.

And most incidents go unreported, apparently due to victims' lack of faith in the system.

A look at past cases in the military

The numbers are staggering, but the military has long struggled with the problem of sexual assault. Last year, it was the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary:

Here are three of the biggest sexual assault scandals in U.S. military history.

The Tailhook Scandal

Admiral Jeremy Boorda, who was involved in the Tailhook '91 investigations. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1991, 83 women and seven men were sexually assaulted at the Tailhook Association Symposium - an aircraft carrier conference - in Las Vegas, Nevada. Some veterans say the scandal led to needed changes in the old "boys club" atmosphere among military aviators.

The Aberdeen Scandal

Aberdeen Proving Ground celebrates Armed Forces Day. Photo by Flickr user RDECOM.

At the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, a group of officers were accused of raping six women trainees in 1996. Staff Sgt. Delmar Simpson received the harshest punishment, with a sentence of 25 years in prison.

Air Force Academy Scandal

United States Air Force Academy from Flickr user Caitee Smith.

In 2003, an anonymous email sent to high-ranking officials and the media alluded to sexual assault at the respected U.S. Air Force Academy. A survey found that 12% of the women who graduated from the Academy that year were victims of rape, and that victims who came forward were punished instead of their attackers.

How sexual assault affects the military

U.S. Army Spc. Amanda Vasquez, at an event at Forward Operating Base Marez, in Mosul, Iraq, Sept. 5, 2009. Image from the U.S. Army via Flickr.

Sexual assaults hinders the effectiveness of the military - if you're being mistreated, and subjected to assault or even rape, it's hard to maintain morale and do your very best. It can also affect recruiting.

Sexual assault burdens both the individual and the military as a whole. For victims, sexual assault leads to a variety of problems, such as isolation, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, loss of career, degradation, even homelessness.

For the military as a whole, sexual assault leads to instability. And when accusations and reports of sexual assault arise it tarnishes the positive public image of the military branches.

All of this makes the military weaker, not stronger.

A sexual assault awareness poster, from U.S. Navy Imagery via Flickr.

The Army's Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, or SHARP, was put in place to prevent sexual harassment and assault.

But it doesn't seem to be working, does it?

A sailor makes handprints on a canvas during Sexual Assault Awareness Month training. (The poster reads "These Hands Don't Hurt.") Image from U.S. Navy Imagery via Flickr.

So, what next?

Political response: outrage, anger, action

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel briefs the press on April 10, 2013 at the Pentagon. Photo via Secretary of Defense on Flickr.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel - a highly decorated soldier who served in the Army during the Vietnam War - is calling for a "cultural change":

"We need cultural change, where every service member is treated with dignity and respect, where all allegations of inappropriate behavior are treated with seriousness, where victims' privacy is protected, where bystanders are motivated to intervene and where offenders know that they will be held accountable by strong and effective systems of justice."

The President - who, of course, is also the Commander in Chief of the armed forces - said that speeches and sexual assault awareness programs were no longer making a difference:

"We're going to have to not just step up our game, we have to exponentially step up our game to go after this hard."

Jeremiah Arbogast, a retired member of the Marine Corps, was sexually assaulted while serving and has long since been an advocate for change in the way the military handles sexual assault. Echoing the president, Arbogast says that training videos and informational pamphlets won't fix this major problem. He said,

“I love the Marine Corps and military with all my heart, but I want to rid the military of these sick individuals.”

One way to combat the problem is to pass laws to change military policy. There's already an effort underway to do just that in the House. Two representatives are introducing a bill that would take away military officers' ability to overturn convictions for major offenses such as sexual assault.

And in the Senate, a bill was introduced yesterday that would provide sexual assault victims in the military with extra support. It would also bar sexual contact between instructors and trainees during basic training and for 30 days afterward.

The Kicker

Here are some things you can do if you care about this issue:

Sign the Invisible War petition >>

Find out about the Military Rape Crisis Center >>

Get involved with Protect Our Defenders >>

Report a sexual assault >>

Participate in National Sexual Assault Awareness Month >>

Explore the SafeHelpline for military members >>

Create your own action campaign >>

Images used under Creative Commons licensing.

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Is Sexual Assault in the Military Making Us Unsafe?

Ryan Chavis

Ryan is a social media enthusiast and cupcake connoisseur living in Brooklyn. Originally from North Carolina, he worked in banking before taking on the Big Apple to study writing and reporting at NYU. He loves marketing, lomography, theater, and the color mint, and is obsessed with “Orange is the New Black.” Follow: @JamesRyanChavis.

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  1. tcain says:

    These guys should be tried in a civil court….not the military court. This would surely result in many more convictions.
    If the military commanders have knowledge of the offenses, but do nothing, they are the same as the Catholic bishops and they should also be subject to prosecution in a civilian court.  Too bad this will never happen.