For Military Sexual-Assault Survivors, Proposed Reforms Are Only a Start

"You can't train a rapist to not be a rapist ... But you can change the way those complaints are handled in the hopes that it resets the standard for behavior."
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U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, (D-NY) speaks about pending legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military at a Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 4, 2013. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Brian Lewis was a determined 20-year-old petty officer, envisioning a long career of service after three years in the Navy. But that was before he was raped.

In August 2000, after being assigned as a fire-control technician aboard the USS Frank Cable, a submarine tender out of Guam, a superior offered to provide career guidance over dinner. Later that night, in a remote area near some commercial fishing docks, the superior attacked the young petty officer, irrevocably changing his life.

"After that, my chain of command ordered me not to report it to Naval Criminal Investigative Service," Lewis told National Journal Daily. "That's what happens in our military justice system. I cannot in good conscience tell a service member that reporting to their chain of command is in their best interest."

As officials in Washington grapple with reforms to the military justice system, among those watching with sharp interest may be thousands of victims. An an estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact occurred in the armed services in fiscal 2012, according to the Defense Department. Although most of the military health services offered to deal with it cater to women, more than half of the victims are actually men.

The military says it is making changes, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill have committed to putting some reforms in place this year. But many victims and their advocacy organizations insist that what's being discussed is nowhere near adequate to eliminate the conflicts of interest in the military justice system or to curb a culture that often blames victims when incidents occur.

"A lot of emphasis is now being placed on protecting victims from retaliation after they come forward," Lewis said. "All of the proposals fail to address what happens to the victim before that."

Survivors of sexual assault argue it is practically impossible to seek medical or legal assistance in private, that the only way to get help and try to seek justice is to go through superiors.

But commanders have broad leeway over how to handle such situations.

In the military justice system, the chain of command decides what to do with allegations of sexual misconduct, including whether to prosecute cases or throw them out without further investigation. What happens in the chain also reflects on the commander, so critics argue it can be in commanders' interest not to acknowledge problems in their ranks.

On the Hill, dozens of lawmakers, led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in the Senate, and Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., in the House, are fighting a tough battle to change that. They are pushing legislation--opposed by both the Pentagon and Armed Services Committee leaders--that would take the decision to prosecute out of the chain of command but leave it within the military. However, even the staunchest advocates of this bill say that this is not enough.

Paula Coughlin, who brought the problem of sexual assault in the military into the public eye after her assault at the Tailhook convention of aviators in 1991, said she does not know that any bill proposed in Congress could have prevented her attack. But she argues that reforms like Gillibrand's would have ensured at least a greater attempt at justice, and this might change behavior.

"I don't know if one of those bills would have prevented my attack," she said. "But I feel certain that the way I was mistreated by the military justice system, and most importantly by my chain of command, that it would have been different if there had been a law that said you have to handle every sexual-assault complaint immediately and hand it over to a third-party investigating unit."

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Stacy Kaper is a staff writer (economics) for National Journal.

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