October 30, 2014

BARELY LEGAL: Sexual Violence in the U.S. Military

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By FLORENCE SEAMAN

Soon after September 11, 2001, Stephanie Schroeder joined the U.S. Marine Corps because she wanted to serve her country. She knew that her service would require hard work and sacrifice, but she never could have expected that the danger she’d face would be from her own colleagues. Within a year of service, Stephanie was raped by a fellow Marine. “This experience was traumatic, but what followed was complete torture,” Stephanie recounted in a statement to Cornell Law School’s Global Gender Justice Clinic. Assaults continued, and Stephanie was forced to work alongside her attackers for over a year while her unit turned its back on her. “My attackers sexually degraded me in front of my entire unit, and my commander called me a ‘troublemaker’ and punished me every chance he got.” Eventually, Stephanie was discharged from the military with a personality disorder, even though she never saw a doctor to even receive that diagnosis.

Unfortunately, what happened to Stephanie and how she was treated is not a one-off occurrence. While the military has made significant changes to combat the problem of sexual violence, these changes have not resulted in lower rates of sexual violence against service members. In fact, the rates of sexual abuse have risen steadily since reporting started in 2004, and, in 2014, the Department of Defense reported 5,061 sexual assaults against service members. Furthermore, the military judicial system prosecutes only eight percent of those alleged to have engaged in rape or sexual assault, as compared to the civilian system, which prosecutes 40 percent of those alleged to be such perpetrators. By allowing a culture of impunity, the U.S. government fails to honor the sacrifices of our service members who risk their lives every day for our country.

All citizens would like to think that if they reported a crime that was committed against them, it would be investigated promptly, thoroughly and unbiasedly. However, when service members experience sexual violence in the military, the Manual for Courts-Martial gives the accused’s commander the power to determine whether the case will be investigated and prosecuted. But what if the commander perpetrated the abuse? Or the commander simply does not want prosecution of a sex abuse case to damage the reputation of the unit? Because commanders might have close working or personal relationships with the accused, their partiality compromises the military’s ability to afford meaningful redress.

Additionally, because of U.S. Supreme Court precedent in cases likeCioca v. Rumsfeld, survivors of military sexual assault cannot access federal courts for redress. So if a commander decides not to investigate or prosecute a service member’s case, the survivor cannot appeal the decision. If all civilian citizens can seek justice in federal courts, then shouldn’t the people who are protecting our freedom have that same right?

Like Stephanie, many servicewomen and men who have experienced and reported unwanted sexual conduct have been revictimized through professional retaliation (such as denial of rank), social retaliation, administrative action and/or other punishment, according to a Department of Defense briefing. Nobody should have to suffer through retaliation as a consequence of seeking justice.

The United Nations Committee Against Torture will review the United States’ compliance with the UN Convention Against Torture from November 11 to 13. Cornell Law School’s Avon Global Center for Women and Justice and Global Gender Justice Clinic, with support from relevant organizations advocating on behalf of military sexual assault survivors, have submitted a shadow report to the Committee, outlining U.S. shortcomings in protecting service members’ fundamental rights and suggesting reforms. In particular, decisions about how sexual assault complaints are resolved should be taken out of the chain of command, so that commanders do not control whether or not these crimes are prosecuted. The U.S. military is made up of outstanding American women and men who have devoted their lives to serving our country. The government should ensure that their noble and critically important work is not tarnished by the scourge of sexual violence.

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