01/29/2013 10:55 am ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

Separate and Unequal: Sexual Assault Survivors in the Military

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 it comes to sexual violence, there are two separate, and unequal, systems available to victims: one for service members who are raped, the other for civilians (including those who work for the Department of Defense).

As an advocate for survivors of sexual and domestic violence, I am the first to say that the civilian system for responding to sexual assault is far from perfect. It is not uncommon for law enforcement officers to dismiss complaints based on stereotypes about how "real" victims should act or fail to process rape kits. The U.S. Department of Justice recently sued and entered into agreements with the police departments of New Orleans and Puerto Rico after documenting police misconduct in the departments' responses to sexual and domestic violence.

But servicemembers face unique barriers to justice. While civilians' criminal cases are dealt with by police and prosecutors (with oversight by DOJ when law enforcement agencies systematically fail to meet their civil rights obligations), servicemembers' supervisors -- i.e., chain of command -- decide the disposition of their sexual assault complaints according to the military's priorities. And while civilians can seek other remedies if their employer knows about sexual assault or harassment on the job, such as filing suit under Title VII, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission does not accept complaints from servicemembers. A 1950 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Feres v. United States, shields the federal government from suits by servicemembers when they are injured in the performance of their duties. The Feres doctrine has been applied to bar other types of legal claims, including constitutional and Title VII claims.

In the last year, fierce advocacy exposed and overcame some of the obstacles to justice confronted by servicemembers.

  • The House of Representatives held an important hearing highlighting how veterans seeking disability benefits based on conditions -- such as PTSD and depression -- due to military sexual assault are subjected to a different evidentiary standard compared to veterans whose PTSD results from combat.
  • Earlier this month, the National Defense Authorization Act lifted the longstanding ban on abortion care for servicemembers who become pregnant as a result of rape and incest. Other federal health insurance programs covering civilians provide funding for abortion care in these circumstances, but before this reform, servicemembers were denied coverage for the same health care available to those they protect.
  • The NDAA also included a number of other provisions designed to strengthen the military's response to sexual violence within its ranks, including providing victims with legal assistance and increasing access to trained Sexual Assault Response Coordinators and Victim Advocates.
  • And the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a briefing on January 11 on military sexual assault and plans to issue a report with its findings on the Department of Defense's responses to sexual violence.

To build on these successes, we must keep the spotlight on this issue. The documentary Invisible War played a vital role in bringing much needed attention to the horrific experiences of servicemembers who are sexually assaulted. And this Wednesday, January 30, the ACLU, Service Women's Action Network and the Yale Veteran Legal Services Clinic will be back in federal court in our ongoing Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. We filed the lawsuit because the extent to which the government addresses, ignores, and hides military sexual trauma and its effects must be fully known. Only then can we truly address the injustice that helps perpetuate military sexual violence.