Editors Note: The staff of Scandalous! has the utmost respect for America’s armed forces. Several of us have husbands or boyfriends who have served or are serving. This article is in no way meant to denigrate the military as a whole but, rather, to draw attention to a culture propagated by a relative few that must be extracted.
We’ll call her Helen. When she awakened the morning after a party with a painful vagina and a clouded memory, this Marine didn’t want to believe than anything had happened to her. Even when a neighbor told her that a fellow (male) Marine had been seen leaving her house in the hours when her memory was a blank, she shook it off. When that same man came over to her house uninvited later in the day to sit and talk with mutual friends, she went upstairs and went to bed, shaken but thinking of the imminent return of her husband and son (temporarily away to visit a sick relative). In the early morning hours, the Marine broke into her room and raped her. Helen fought him, and cried herself to sleep when he left. Hours later, she awakenedin the pool of blood that had, at the time of the assault, been concealed by darkness and blankets. Helen reported the incident to the police. Her career in the military was ruined as a result. She had known that it would be. Her fellow Marines turned against her. She had known that they would. Other female Marines reported being sexually assaulted by the same man, but retracted their accusations after seeing how Helen was treated. Helen didn’t blame them.
Helen is in good company. So are the women who remained silent. Thousands more women have been sexually attacked while in the military. Some reported their attackers, and were brutally punished for it. Many more felt that the danger of staying silent was less than what would be visited upon them if they came forward.
“I was drugged and gang-raped by fellow soldiers. The nightmares and anxiety are slowly killing me.”
In all this, there is a tiny spark of hope. There have been strides toward making the military an environment that protects survivors of sexual assault, rather than protecting the perpetrators of sexual assault. In 2013, the annual defense policy bill included several reforms regarding the manner in which the military approaches sexual assault cases. This bill alone ended the ability of commanders to overturn jury convictions in cases of military sexual assault, as well as insuring that anyone in the military convicted of sexual assault would be dishonorably discharged. It also removed the statute of limitations on military sexual assault, and made it against the law for anyone to retaliate against those who come forward to report sexual assault.
These reforms are phenomenal, but pause for a moment here. The fact that these were reforms just newly passed by Congress as recently as the winter of 2013 means that they weren’t on the books before. Before these reforms, it was legal to punish a survivor of military rape for coming forward to report his or her attacker or attackers. Before these reforms, people convicted of rape could remain in the military, secure in their positions and authority. Before these reforms, commanding officers could, and did, overturn jury convictions of rape. One case in particular that made headlines was that involving the rape conviction by jury of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson. Wilkerson’s commanding officer, Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin, overturned the conviction, citing that Wilkerson was a family man who apparently loved his wife and doted on his children, and that he was unsure of the credibility of the accuser. Lt. Gen. Franklin did not even see the trial. The reforms were put through because they were grossly, blindingly necessary. Despite that, 15 members of Congress voted against them.
“I reported it. I saw him every day for 2 months. At the Article 32 I was told that my character was in question and I wasn’t drunk enough. He got promoted and away with it.”
Many suggest that the reforms did not go far enough, and that the military needs a deeper structural overhaul in order to protect its employees from the kind of abuse they have systematically faced in recent years. After all, the armed forces are still staffed by people who gained their positions of power before these (sadly recent) reforms took place. They are people who succeeded in a regime even more riddled with injustice toward the victims of sexual assault than it is now. The underpinnings, ideologies, and wider practices of the military are still those of an institution that failed to protect so many of the very people who were fighting for its success. This is still the system that fed into the mindset of rapists until they felt that they could commit their crimes with relative impunity. Legal reforms are a start, but they are only a start. The wider issue of sexual assault in the military will only change with an ideological shift in the way that women are viewed, and the way that sexual assault is viewed.
“I have a horrible suspicion that the re[s]t of the country thinks the military has curbed sexual assault. We haven’t. We just don’t tell anymore. I did, and it ruined my career.”
The hypothesis that the reforms of 2013 haven’t gone far enough may be proven in years to come. Despite the illegality of punishing those who come forward with information about sexual assault, fully 62% of people who reported suffering military sexual assault faced retaliation. The manner in which so many members of the armed forces chose to protect rapists rather than victims makes it sadly understandable that, in 2012, the Pentagon estimated that less than 13% of the victims of military sexual assault came forward. The barrage of heartbreaking stories that I have come across in my research is apparently only a small fraction of an internal cavalcade of horrors. As time inches forward, these horrors may or may not decrease. A 2014 study by the Pentagon showed that reports of sexual assault in the military had risen by 50%. It is unknown whether this increase in the number of reports is a result of increased incidents of assault, or whether it is a sign that a higher percentage of assaults are being reported. What we do know is that in a break from precedent, the Pentagon did not include in their study an estimate of the number of sexual assault cases that actually took place, making it distinctly (and suspiciously) difficult to tell whether the military is enacting the previously outlined reforms in a successful manner. We also know that of the 5,061 reported cases of military sexual assault in 2013, only 484 went to trial. Earlier statistics suggest that only a tiny fraction of sexual assault cases in the military are reported. Now we also see that, of that tiny fraction, only about one in ten are brought to trial. What remains is a military machine that is still full of rapists, and still full of silent survivors.
The issue of sexual assault in the military has been covered before, in Rolling Stone and the New York Times, in Buzzfeed and on Whisper. Survivors have revealed scenarios so horrifying that they can engender physical reactions. Keep in mind, though: that chorus of voices is a fraction the whole. Those who remain silent far outnumber those who speak out. There are still people who want to silence rape victims who would tell the horror stories of what they survived. Stories of who they couldn’t trust.
After all, who could they trust?
*The shorter quotes throughout the article are from a Whisper article featured on Buzzfeed, entitled “Harrowing Confessions of Sexual Assault in the Military.” Other first-hand accounts of military sexual assault described in the article were found at mydutytospeak.com, a blog where survivors of military sexual assault post their stories. While these stories are extremely disturbing, they must be told in order to fully realize the problem of sexual assault in the military. I am humbled by the bravery of all those who came forward.