The Jewish War Veterans of the USA is calling for greater action from the Department of Defense to combat what it calls an “extremely alarming” number of sexual-assault incidents involving military personnel — both as suspects and victims.
The Senate Arms Services Committee held a hearing on the issue last Tuesday in which top military uniformed officers testified on Capitol Hill. There were mixed opinions among the officers and committee members over legislation that would strip commanders’ abilities to overturn jury decisions. All agreed change needs to occur.
Among those calling for change was Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan).
“We cannot successfully address this problem without a culture change throughout the military,” Levin said in his opening statement. “Discipline is the heart of the military culture, and trust is its soul. The plague of sexual assault erodes both the heart and the soul. We expect our men and women in uniform to be brothers and sisters in arms, to be prepared to take care of each other in the toughest of situations, in the face of the enemy.”
Levin continued: “That requires a level of trust … which is violated when one service member sexually assaults another.”
According to the Defense Department, there were an estimated 26,000 victims of “unwanted sexual contact” in 2012, up from the 19,300 estimated to have occurred two years prior. Making matters worse, the actual number of sexual crimes reported in fiscal year 2012 was just 3,374, a 6 percent increase from the previous year, said Robert M.Zweiman, international liaison officer of the Jewish War Veterans.
“Most of these crimes go unreported because victims fear retaliation or that no action will be taken,” Zweiman said. “That just can’t be the case anymore.”
Zweiman cited the case of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, who was found guilty of aggravated sexual assault by a panel of five military officers in November 2012. However, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Wilkerson tossed out the conviction in February without an explanation. In May, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, chief of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program, was arrested and charged with sexual battery.
Zweiman said the Wilkerson case is just the latest example of the military refusing to take enough proactive steps to deal with the issue of sexual assault among its ranks. He added that less than one in 10 sexual-assault courts-martial lead to convictions. He wants taken away the right of military officers to void a conviction for no reason.
“My concern isn’t just for the high-profile cases, but for all of the incidents that go un-reported out of fear,” Zweiman said. “With a system like this in place, the ability to seek justice is greatly reduced. An independent third party needs to work with the military to see these cases through.”
The Defense Department appears to have taken notice; media reports surfaced last week that the Navy is investigating three members of its football program accused of sexually assaulting a female student.
In addition, the Defense Department recently announced the launch of the Safe HelpRoom (safehelpline.org), a service that allows victims of sexual assault to participate in group chat sessions to connect with and support one another in a moderated secure online environment. Safe HelpRoom and a similar phone hotline — Safe Helpline — are administered by the Defense Department and operated by the nonprofit Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
“Survivors of sexual assault have told us that being able to discuss their concerns with peers can provide a level of support not available through other means, “said Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica L. Wright in a statement. “The Safe HelpRoom is a groundbreaking development in the department’s commitment to support military victims of sexual assault.”
The Defense Department also established the Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel, which will, according to a news
release, “conduct an independent review and assessment of the systems used to investigate, prosecute and adjudicate crimes involving adult sexual assault and related offenses under article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, for the purpose of developing recommendations concerning how to improve the effectiveness of those systems.”
Locally, U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-2), the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, said every facet of how the military handles sexual assault cases needs to be examined.
“We need to improve the culture and educational efforts to stop such incidents from occurring in the first place,” Ruppersberger said. “We need to examine current protocols to see if we need something completely new or just to improve existing regulations.”
The efforts come as welcomed news to Nancy Aiken, executive director of the Baltimore-based CHANA: Counseling, Helpline & Aid Network for Abused Women.
Along with her work counseling abuse victims in the community, Aiken has also volunteered her time to speak with National Guard members as they return home from overseas deployments. She said she has spoken with many troops who have experienced sexual assaults and abuse but did not report the incidents.
“To many, dealing with the assault is much like dealing with the terrors of war,” she said. “What happened over there stays over there, and when they get home they just have to soldier on.”
Aiken continued: “Unfortunately, many don’t realize the impact of their trauma until months or even years after they return home. They need to understand that they should come forward and make those responsible be held accountable for their actions.”
“It’s taking a look at the entire military culture,” Zweiman said. “Everyone in the military is risking their lives to keep us safe from the enemy. They shouldn’t have to also be afraid of those serving alongside of them.”
Ron Snyder is a JT staff reporter — [email protected]