Military service is presented as an opportunity to honorably serve our nation, sometimes in harm’s way, upon request of our elected civilian leadership. It continues to be offered as “another chance” for education and work experiences. In the 40 years after the Vietnam War era, the United States has sustained a capable, career-oriented, all-volunteer force with pitfalls and challenges.
To those servicemen and women, “in harm’s way” did not mean harm inflicted by their fellow service members or others employed by the Department of Defense. In their minds, it certainly did not mean needing to protect themselves from assaults and rapes within the ranks.
It does today, and it did many years ago, but survivors were afraid and ashamed to ask for help. Tens of thousands of World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War and peacetime veterans are reaching out for help.
There are about 2.3 million people — about 85 percent male and 15 percent female — serving in all branches of the military today. According to conservative estimates, one in 100 military men and one in four military women are victims of sexual assault and/or rape. Fifty-six percent of known military sexual assault survivors are military men.
How did the military get here? It is all about power, control and violence in a culture where offenders’ behavior has been tolerated, ignored and condoned by many. The vast majority of perpetrators are heterosexual men.
Over time it became OK to recruit known sexual-misconduct felons by granting what the military called moral waivers. “Steeped-in-tradition” ways of doing business continued. The military chain of command had the discretion to initiate or deny criminal investigations; the military justice system’s record of prosecuting alleged offenders is sparse; and until recently, victims had negligible legal protections.
Military members do not enjoy the same civil and human rights as all other U.S. citizens. The outcome is workplace violence. Sexual harassment, assault and rape are now a shameful epidemic in our nation’s military.
But it’s out of the closet now. Congress is immersed in helping the military figure out how to fix itself for the long haul. There continues to be a nationwide grassroots “after-the-uniform” effort to stop sexual violence in the military. Since 2011, extensive legislation has been passed with much more on the books to ensure:
- Recruiters are prohibited from giving moral waivers for individuals with felony convictions for rape, sexual abuse, sexual assault or related offenses;
- Victims now have legal protections to include confidential communications, legal counsel, forensic examinations, safeguarded evidence and access to reports;
- Reserve and National Guard members who file complaints will remain on active duty while their cases are investigated to ensure their cases are not dropped;
- Active-duty female victims now have access to comprehensive federal health care, a right that federal prisoners, civil service and Indian Health Service enrollees have had for many years;
- The reporting process is external of the unit chain of command for criminal investigations; and
- More alleged offender actionable cases will be prosecuted, and, when convicted, punitive sentences will be considered, as well as mandatory administrative separation or dismissal.
The military’s professed oaths and values of integrity, trust, excellence and willingness to sacrifice one’s life make sexual violence in the armed forces particularly tragic — and survivor recovery so much more painful.
When you have a strong sense of loyalty — that sense of an unbreakable bond — it’s devastating when “one of your own,” who you are taught to trust with your life, betrays you with sexual violence. It can also be difficult to report incidents or get professional treatment, especially if those you might report to may be friends with the perpetrator, or, worse, be the perpetrator.
Those who wear the uniform know they cannot quit or walk away and may be expected to stay in the same unit as their perpetrator.
Military sexual assault and rape survivors often face overwhelming difficulties when they leave the military. They frequently experience homelessness, substance abuse, difficulty keeping jobs and challenging mental health conditions that include sleeplessness, anxiety, depression and eating disorders.
I believe in informed choice: Know the business you join, and expect to be treated with dignity and respect. No U.S. citizen should be asked to sign a document giving up their civil and human rights, including the men and women who serve in our military to protect those same rights. It’s wrong.
We urge active-duty and veteran survivors to reach out for free assistance relating to military sexual trauma. For help, contact Maine VA Military Sexual Assault Coordinator Kathy Russin at 877-421-8263, ext. 4296, or the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s statewide crisis and support line at 1-800-871-7741.
Lt. Col. Terry Moore retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2003 after 20 years of service. She is establishing the nonprofit WomenVetsUSA and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.