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We Must Change the Culture of Violence Against Women in the Military

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For women, the military can be a dangerous environment -- and I'm not just talking about combat.

The Pentagon released chilling data this week that concludes there were an estimated 26,000 cases of sexual assault in the military last year, up from 19,000 in 2010. But only a small fraction of those assaults were reported -- 3,374 in 2012 compared with 3,192 in 2011.

And of those few, only 238 assailants were convicted.

Is "military justice" for women an oxymoron? I hope not, but this has been an eye-opening week about the culture of violence against women in the military.

Along with that disturbing data from the Pentagon, news broke this week that a second three-star Air Force General has been revealed to have granted clemency to an officer found guilty of sexual assault.

And on the same day, we learned that the officer in charge of the Air Force's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office had been arrested and charged with groping a woman in a parking lot.

Writing about that case, Maureen Dowd quoted from the police report:

"On May 5 at 12:35 a.m., a drunken male subject approached a female victim in a parking lot and grabbed her breasts and buttocks," the report read. "The victim fought the suspect off as he attempted to touch her again and alerted police. Jeffrey Krusinski, 41, of Arlington, Va., was arrested and charged with sexual battery."

Maureen Dowd called this a "fox-in-the-henhouse" moment, and the hypocrisy of this case will keep the story in the news for a while. But farther up the chain of command, the news is even worse.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), a member of the Armed Services Committee, has drafted legislation that would prohibit a commander's ability to vacate or nullify a jury's verdict, and require written justification for any decision commuting or lessening a sentence following a guilty verdict in a Court Martial. Current regulations allow a commander to nullify a jury verdict "for any reason, or no reason at all."

In a recent column, Senator McCaskill explained the urgency behind her legislation.

In November, Air Force Lt. Col. James Wilkerson was convicted of sexual assault. He was found guilty by an all-male military jury, sentenced to one year in a military prison, and dismissal from service. At the time, this case was heralded by some as a sign that the military was taking serious steps to combat sexual assaults, and evidence that more aggressive oversight by Congress was not needed.



But just a few months after Wilkerson began to serve his sentence, the Air Force commander overseeing Wilkerson's case, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, used his command authority to dismiss the charges against Wilkerson. It was a unilateral action, permissible under military law, and one which led Wilkerson to be released from prison and reinstated into service, his record expunged of wrongdoing. Lt. Gen. Franklin, a fighter pilot like Wilkerson, was not even required to provide a reason for his decision.



The shock and anger I felt when I learned about this reversal must pale in comparison to its effect on sexual assault survivors. What chilling message does this decision send to victims?

Sen. McCaskill went on to write, "it's difficult to imagine a sexual assault survivor in that Air Force unit will now come forward -- having received the message communicated by Lt. Gen. Franklin, with just the stroke of a pen, that jury decisions don't matter, and that if you're sexually assaulted in the military, you're on your own."

It didn't take very long for Sen. McCaskill's warning to be proved again. This week, just two months after the hearing where she spoke out against Gen. Franklin, Sen McCaskill has blocked the nomination of Lt. Gen. Susan J. Helms, who as a crew member of the space shuttle Endeavor was the first military woman to travel in space in 1993, to become Vice Commander of the Air Force's Space Command.

In this case, Gen. Helms overturned the sexual assault conviction of a captain at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. A jury had found Capt. Matthew S.Herrara guilty and sentenced him to 60 days behind bars, a loss of pay and dismissal from the Air Force. Gen. Helms' legal adviser recommended she reject Herrara's request for clemency, but in February 2012, she granted clemency without explanation, erasing the conviction.

"Soon afterward," the Washington Post reported, "the noncommissioned officer who had accused Herrera of sexually assaulting her said that she had crossed paths with him at Vandenberg and, because she was junior in rank, she was required to salute him.



"He had a very smug look on his face," Tech. Sgt. Jennifer J. Robinson said in an interview. "I was devastated and shocked."

Only 7.1 percent of the generals and admirals in the U.S. military are women, with only 28 female generals in the Air Force. That's what makes Gen. Helms' actions even more disturbing.

We haven't fought so hard and so long against the good old boys culture so women could act like good old girls!

I don't always agree with President Obama , but he was right when he said at a news conference on Wednesday, "If we find out somebody's engaging in this stuff, they've got to be held accountable, prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged -- period."

The effects of this culture of victim-blaming, coverup and misogyny goes far beyond individual cases of criminal justice. According to the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN),

While rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment are strongly associated with a wide range of mental health conditions for both men and women veterans, they are the leading causes of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among women veterans, while combat trauma is still the leading cause of PTSD among men. Sexual violence is often a risk factor for homelessness among women veterans. Stress, depression, and other mental health issues associated with surviving military sexual violence make it more likely that survivors will experience high rates of substance abuse and will have difficulty finding work after discharge from the military.

The National Organization for Women (NOW) supports Sen.McCaskill's legislation, and more needs to be done. Survivors of military rape should be allowed to sue the US military to hold their employers accountable for sexual harassment and assault, just as civilian employees can. Because the command chain is obviously incapable of responding appropriately to claims of sexual assault, military prosecutors should have that responsibility. And survivors suffering from PTSD should have full access to the services they need to recover.

Along with Sen. McCaskill's bill, NOW supports legislation introduced this week by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), The Combating Military Sexual Assault Act, which would create a new category of legal advocates, called Special Victims' Counsels, who would be responsible for advocating on behalf of the interests of the victim.

Another important measure has been introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). The Military Sexual Assault Prevention Act of 2013 would prevent sexual offenders from serving in the military, improve tracking and review of sexual assault claims in the military, and help ensure victims can get the justice they deserve.

We hear a lot about "honor" when it comes to the military, and that needs to be more than lip service. Army soldiers, for example, are taught seven basic values which are meant to be part of everything they do, every day, whether they're on the job or off.

The value of respect instructs:

"treat others with dignity and respect while expecting others to do the same."

Those are pretty good words to live by, but if they're going to have any meaning the consequences for defying them need to be tough and--most importantly--certain.

No matter how high the rank or how stellar the career.