The epidemic of military sexual assaults in our armed forces is not just pervasive in war zones and the academies. A New York Times editorial last week, "The Military's Dirty Secret" rightly recognized that a culture of "disrespect" for women plays a significant role in this crisis. But it's a cultural problem throughout the military -- on bases in this country and around the world -- and it's not just women who are victims. It's about a culture that turns a blind eye to abuse of power -- as illustrated by the recent cases that have come to light during the largest abuse scandal in the military's history that is ongoing at the Air Force's San Antonio-Lackland training base. According to the San Antonio Express, the charges include male recruits being "forced to fill their canteens with toilet water, denying them use of the latrine, and refusing to seek medical attention for a recruit with blood in his urine."
While the scandal at Lackland has gotten our attention, the DoD's own data indicates that 19,000 people a year both men and women are assaulted. This has been going on for decades. Of those 19,000 victims -- less than 14 percent report due to fear of retaliation.
Our broken system of military justice fosters this permissive culture of sexual harassment and rape. Victims are marked as troublemakers and punished for reporting, while the crimes are rarely prosecuted and perpetrators continue on with their careers.
Every time scandals like Tailhook in 1992, Aberdeen in 1997, the Air Force Academy in 2003, USMC 8 and 1 Barracks in 2012 and now Lackland break, the military announces a list of supposed reforms that are invariably half measures that lack the fundamentals required to change the culture. Secretary's Panetta recent highly touted reform of moving the reporting up the chain of command is just the latest example. As the New York Times editorial, points out, according to a yet to be published VA report, "the offenders were often of a higher rank." These so-called reforms become a perpetual excuse for congress to wait, to give the military leadership more time.
It's high time for Congress and the executive branch to look hard at all aspects of the military justice system, including the inherent conflicts and bias within the chain of command that so often preclude justice.
Commanders have complete discretion to sweep "problems" under the rug, often by discouraging the victim from formally reporting, investigating the victim, preempting courts martial proceedings, and setting aside convictions using the "Good Military Character" defense. Unpunished rapists undermine morale, unit cohesion and mission readiness. They are not good soldiers -- period. We need our elected leaders to take action in 2013 to fix our broken system of military justice. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 17 percent of women in the general population become sexual assault victims during their lifetime, while a 2006 VA study estimates that 22-33 percent of female service members are assaulted while in the service. This is unacceptable and must stop.