Our soldiers are in danger.
It's time for heads to roll in the United States military. President Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel must overhaul the system and start firing people. The talk and policy changes are not getting the job done for the thousands of victims of sexual assault in our armed services. The fear factor must be shifted from victims to perpetrators. It is time to take the lack luster policy of zero tolerance seriously.
Brigadier General Jeffrey A. Sinclair is the first high-ranking general to face sexual assault charges in a court-martial. A military judge recently accepted a plea bargain which dismisses the more serious charges that he forced his mistress, a captain and junior officer, into oral sex and threatened to kill her and her family. Sinclair pleaded guilty to lesser charges including misuse of a government charge card, that he mistreated the captain, and for using demeaning and derogatory language about female staff officers. The deal came about after prosecutors discovered a credibility issue with part of the victim's story. The military had been zealous in building its case against Sinclair in an attempt to make a public showing that it was taking a firm stance against sexual assaults. Overall, neither side won in the Sinclair case, so what is the solution?
Fear of getting caught is the key to stemming sexual assaults within the military. When young men and women volunteer to serve our country and risk their lives, they should be kept safe from sexual predators within their own ranks. Instead, we're hearing about men and women who have been drugged, beaten, and raped. So many victims are afraid to report sex crimes due to fear of retaliation, demotion, and humiliation.
Members of Congress, the military, and victims' advocates groups have been fighting over solutions. Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand argues for the removal of sexual assault investigations out of the chain of command. She advocates that victims should not have to report sexual assaults to their commanders, who could potentially be biased. Instead, these cases should be referred to a military lawyer. Her bill failed to pass a procedural vote. Senator Gillibrand should be applauded for her valiant efforts, yet her proposal would do little to prevent perpetrators from carrying out criminal acts.
"Taking these sexual assault investigations and prosecutions out of the chain of command will crush the military," according to Colonel David Hunt, who has over 29 years of military service, including extensive operational experience in special operations, counter terrorism and intelligence operations. Colonel Hunt's role as a commander began with a Special Forces Operational Detachment of 12 soldiers, and expanded to commanding a brigade of over 1,000 personnel.
"In the armed services, people who are in charge have absolute authority," Hunt explains. "Soldiers have to be able to trust their chain of command. The people in charge have the authority to stop the criminal activity. The present military climate is ripe for the rape and sexual assault of soldiers. The Department of Defense has to acknowledge the epidemic before they can fix it. The facts are right in front of them."
This widespread abuse of soldiers speaks volumes. Suicide rates are going through the roof. A climate of fear and mistrust has infiltrated the ranks. This injustice is a disgrace to the men and women who serve our country. The Pentagon estimated there were 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact in 2012, which is a significant increase over the 19,000 estimated assaults in 2011. In addition, 62 percent of sexual assault victims in the military claim they faced retaliation for reporting the criminal behavior.
"We're seeing a total lack of trust and discipline -- a total collapse," Hunt said. "There's a breakdown of morals in the military, which reflects a serious leadership problem. Perhaps it has something to do with being at war for so many years, but commanders really have to be alert to it and make changes. For example, I took over a unit where a major was sleeping with his soldiers. He had a harem--it was all about sex and power. He was fired. The case successfully went to court-martial, and he was thrown out of the army. That behavior simply cannot go unpunished. Commanders must not tolerate soldiers being mistreated--they owe it to them."
The Department of Defense has vowed: "zero tolerance." Hagel and his chiefs of staff are concerned, talking about it, and having classes. Some recent reforms favorable to victims have been made as reflected in the National Defense Authorization Act. For example, commanders cannot simply overrule convictions in sexual-assault cases, and the statute of limitations restrictions on sexual assaults have been lifted.
"Until you chop the heads off of senior officers then it's not going to stop," Hunt maintains. "The solution is to fire the people who are not getting the job done. Hagel must build trust in the entire organization, and therefore he must fire about 20-30 two to four star generals."
A major overhaul is needed. Members of the military must be able to trust the system; trust that all sexual assault cases are going to be properly investigated and handled judiciously without a fear of retaliation.
This black cloud of fear must be dispelled from hovering over victims of sexual assault. Instead, make it surround and suffocate the perpetrators. When young people volunteer to serve our country, their service should be revered by us all -- especially those in command.