01/30/2013 10:30 am ET Updated Apr 01, 2013

Military Women Deserve VAWA Protection

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.

Almost 20 years ago, Senator Joseph Biden issued a report to Congress as the culmination of a three‐year investigation into the causes and effects of violence against women. The study exposed in scathing terms a justice system "that fails by any standard" to meet the goals of apprehending, convicting, and incarcerating perpetrators. Finding that only one in ten reported rapes result in prison time and nearly half are dismissed before trial, it depicted a landscape rife with detours from the course of justice: complaints that fail to lead to arrests, arrests that fail to generate prosecutions, prosecutions that fail to yield convictions, and convictions that fail to produce meaningful sentences.

In response to these findings, the report proposed comprehensive federal legislation to expand rights and resources for victims of gender-based violence. The result was the 1994 enactment of the Violence Against Women Act, the landmark statute recently introduced again in Congress for reauthorization.

In addition to creating a grants office to oversee and implement funding for victim services, the original Act established such provisions as a federal rape shield law and a full faith and credit requirement for interstate protective orders. Subsequent authorizations have improved avenues of relief for special populations like immigrant and Native American women, recognizing the unique barriers to reporting within these communities.

Despite such developments, however, VAWA fails to address a population notably vulnerable to sexual violence: military personnel. By some accounts, nearly a third of female veterans report episodes of sexual assault during military service, while 71 to 90 percent report experiences of sexual harassment. In FY 2011 alone, 3192 service members reported incidents of sexual assault, a figure that the Department of Defense estimates to be only a small fraction of a total 19,000 assaults actually occurring during this time period.

As the award-winning documentary The Invisible War illustrates, for many service members who report sexual violence, the underlying incident is merely the first of a series of betrayals. Since the conduct -- and misconduct -- of service members is considered a matter of unit order and discipline, the military vests commanders with the authority to decide whether or not to invoke the judicial process in response to criminal acts. Instead of a neutral adjudicator, an interested party determines how to dispose of offenses, based as on the "character and military service" of the accused in addition to evidentiary factors.

Granting such unfettered authority to an interested party can and does lead to abuse. Too often, commanders exercise their discretion not simply to relieve offenders, but also to retaliate against victims for disrupting morale. In the civilian world, employees who suffer reprisals for exercising their rights can hold their employers liable through civil complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or in federal court. Service members, however, are barred from these avenues for relief, and must instead rely on biased and ineffectual internal offices to review and remedy instances of retaliation.

While victims who suffer "adverse personnel actions" may seek redress from the Board for the Correction of Military Records, they must first file a grievance through the Office of the Inspector General, which often demonstrates more allegiance to the command than to the complainant. Since IGs can determine at the outset whether or not a complaint merits further attention, remarkably few full investigations occur. According to a recent GAO report, the IG fully investigated only 29 percent of all reprisal complaints over the past five years, and substantiated only a fifth of those investigated. As a result, only 6 percent of all complainants during this time period ultimately obtained the findings necessary to petition the Board for a remedy.

In the face of a toothless grievance system, service members who file complaints of sexual violence are routinely threatened with collateral charges ranging from underage drinking to fraternization between ranks to dereliction of duty, forcing victims to weigh the benefits of reporting against the risk of self-incrimination. Others are summarily discarded from the service for "behavioral disorders" instead of receiving medical discharges for PTSD, a trend confirmed by statistics revealing the former diagnosis to dwarf the latter by a ratio of ten to one among military women.

It was these very dynamics -- exemption from the rule of law, coupled with cultural insularity and a well-founded fear of the consequences of reporting -- that animated the decision to incorporate provisions on tribal and immigrant victims into the Violence Against Women Act. Just as these groups suffer disproportionate rates of violence in the shadows of the justice system, so, too, are military women subject to particular harm by virtue of being marginalized. VAWA can and should serve as tool for empowering them just as it does for members of other culturally unique communities -- it's time to expand its protections in the service of our country's silent heroines.