06/09/2013 11:30 am ET Updated Aug 09, 2013

Mission Creeps: Sexual Violence in a Volunteer Military

Senator McCain is standing in front of a mother of an 18-year-old girl. John McCain, the man who risked his life for his country and spent five years as a POW is speaking to the mother. "You can't trust the military with your daughter," he is saying. What does it mean when a senator who has historically been a defender of military concerns and who leans towards the hawkish announces that the military is not to be trusted with a woman's safety who is volunteering to risk her life in service to the nation? We honor her service at standing in harm's way, but can't work out a way to shield her from the violence of her brothers-in-arms?

As it stands now, half a million young men and women have been sexually assaulted in the military since 1991. In a sick parallel to friendly fire, these attacks have come within the military themselves, young Americans attacking other young Americans, destroying unity from within. And yet, this week, military commanders stood in front of panel of Representatives on Capital Hill and defended the military structure that is in place now, where rape charges are investigated and pursued from within a unit, with no objective external review or judicial process.

A cursory human rights review might suggest that these commanders have, in extremis, rendered themselves "unfit for service" in making such statements. These commanders aren't unfit in the sham way that was used against LGBT servicemembers for so long, and against men and women of color beforehand. No, these men (and they are all men) have shown themselves to have a weakness of character that they should be drummed out now and post-haste. According to them, the mere presence of a gay or lesbian in uniformed service threatened the ability to get the job done. But, apparently, the threat of sexual assault and rape is to be considered part of the package of service and doesn't need or deserve a stronger response.

Maybe it's just my own background as a former Catholic priest, but I am finding myself more and more drawing parallels between this crisis and the crisis that the Catholic Church has faced with sexual abuse. Though it took far too long, and countless children suffered abuse before any change took place, the pressure of victims, victims' families and legal advocates the world over finally forced the organization to start changing the archaic rules and regulations, to changing the very culture of the Church itself. Accusations of sexual assault now go to the police, instead of to other members of the church, providing an objective legal standard in favor of one based in nepotism and predatory corruption.

The tens of thousands of abuse victims in the military must mobilize and be counted. They must visit Congress, the president, and the media. Put together long records of abuse. Ask for moments of silence at baseball games, football games, soccer games, and basketball games. Put a sense of urgency into the American people. It's not necessary to ask for silence from team owners when a single star player's statement would resonate throughout summer sports and the culture at-large.

Sticking with the same old structure that has let this problem go for decades is simply not an option. If an 18-year-old boy or girl cannot safely enlist in our military, and train to be a soldier without fear of rape, then the system must be brought to a stop. Until there is a guarantee of safety for people to join the military, no person should volunteer. Until there is a strong effort made to address this problem, the military is complicit at sexual violence throughout the larger society and is cheapening the very identity of the nation they are supposed to serve. Remember that: the military serves society and not the opposite. It is up to all of us to demand a better response from an organization we entrust with our protection. Are they really incapable of protecting their own volunteers? Unwilling? Or just too stacked with ossified commanders who won't stand for their ethical responsibilities as they swore to do?

The numbers are horrifying. Not only are their hundreds of thousands of reported crimes, but like with civilian crime we can only assume that the unreported crimes are considerably higher volume. The prosecution record is appalling and the conviction level is reprehensibly low. Not only have we created an environment which allows such abuse and attacks to take place, but we make it very difficult for victims and survivors to come forward.

Change, however, is possible. The institution of the military is no less flexible than the Catholic Church, and has a clearly defined responsibility to act on this. If it was possible to effect change in one of the oldest and powerful Catholic Church, it is certainly possible to do so in the US military. It will not be easy; it will be difficult, and will require young Americans and old Americans alike to stand up and demand better from our generals and leaders, from the men and women who have taken an oath to serve and protect this country.

Contact your elected representatives or local media and ask what they will do to support and report on this plague stalking the volunteers in the American military from within. Until the military addresses this issue with resolution and forceful resolve, there is no honor for those commanders. There may have been a Pride celebration in DC this weekend, but there is little cause for pride in a military command structure that shirks responsibility when protecting their volunteers from sexual violence.

This change should be made for the volunteers that compose the American military, for the principles of fairness and human rights, for the spirit this nation was founded upon, and for the world itself.