Last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban preventing female soldiers from officially serving in combat -- a decision that raised the urgency on efforts to address the festering crisis of sexual assault within the U.S. military. That crisis -- which claimed more than 50 victims of sexual assault a day in the latest year of Defense Department data -- is the subject of the Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary Invisible War. In this series, The Huffington Post invites victims and advocates to speak out about sexual assault in the military.
"When someone in the military is injured on duty, they're a hero and people shake their hands. I was injured too, but I'm treated like it was my fault. I didn't join the military to get raped, I wanted to serve my country too and I did for nearly two years," Kori Cioca told me during an interview.
Cioca is a survivor of an alleged military sexual assault, the lead plaintiff of a class-action lawsuit against the military, and a film subject in the award-winning, Oscar-nominated documentary The Invisible War.
She's faced intense retaliation and upheaval in her life for exposing a crime that affects as many as one third of women and 1 percent of men in the armed forces. A recent study by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that about half of women sent to Iraq or Afghanistan report being sexually harassed, and nearly one in four say they were sexually assaulted.
Most incidents are never reported, in part because soldiers have to report to their chain of command and that could include the rapist or his friends. In Cioca's case, the person she reported initial harassment to was a drinking buddy of the alleged rapists, so he did not help her. Soon the harasser allegedly escalated to rape. Afterward, he claimed it was consensual sex and his punishment was only a minor loss of pay and being forced to stay on the base for 30 days. For her punishment, Cioca was given janitorial duties. Because she was upset and afraid, she was also forced to undergo a mental evaluation.
She said, "The tests showed I was mentally sound and one of the women who saw me and found out what happened got me out of there. Just shy of two years of service, I was discharged with honorable misconduct in 2007 and I didn't make the GI Bill qualifications."
That same woman told her about the 1991 Tailhook scandal and suggested she find a lawyer. Fortunately, lawyer Susan Burke found her, and when Cioca discovered she was just one of tens of thousands of soldiers who have been raped by their comrades, she agreed to join a class action lawsuit to hold the military responsible.
"In the Coast Guard, you learn to fight for just causes and to stand up and be proud," she told me. "I want to try to be strong enough for other people. It's awful thinking about people in the military who are currently going through what I went through. I want to change that."
Nearly two years ago, the American Association of University Women (AAUW), where I work, began providing support to the lawsuit through our Legal Advocacy Fund case support program. Since then, Burke has filed two more class-action lawsuits against the military on behalf of female and male survivors of military sexual assault. AAUW also supports those cases.
Congress is addressing the issue, too. In November of 2011, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) introduced the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act (STOP Act) to create an independent review process for rape reports.
At the hearings, the military said they have instituted many new training and prevention programs. Good. They also said they do not want to change the reporting or prosecuting process, which means commanders continue to have all the power, even though they are not impartial judges, and they may even be the assailants. Bad.
If survivors still face barriers to reporting, if alleged rapists likely face little punishment, and if commanders have so much power, what changes?
In the 22 years since the Tailhook scandal, we have witnessed a cycle: scandals of sexual violence within the military, the revelation of abuse of power, and then congressional hearings during which the military promises to do better. Rinse and repeat.
How many more years will this continue? Our military members deserve so much better.
For now, I am proud to stand by veterans like Cioca who are pressuring the military to improve. You can stand by them too by helping support their cases, donating to support the work of groups that work with survivors like Protect our Defenders and Service Women's Action Network, and taking online action. Make sure your Congressional representatives know you want them to act to change the military reporting structure.
Last, if you meet a survivor of military sexual assault, thank them for their service and for their courage.
Holly Kearl is the Legal Advocacy Fund Program Manager at AAUW. She is also a leading expert on the subject of gender-based street harassment, founder of Stop Street Harassment, and author of a book on the topic.