In the push to reform how the military handles sexual assault, progress has been made. Some Marines still think the reform process is moving too fast, and innocent men are being swept up in the push to wipe out sexual assault in the military.
Congress approved some reform measures in a larger defense bill passed in December. And military sexual assault reports increased by about 50 percent to 3,374 in 2012. That number bumped up again to about 5,000 in 2013, according to military spokesperson Lt. Col. Catherine T. Wilkerson. But Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's amendment to take sexual assault cases outside the chain of command still hasn't gotten a vote, and the military estimates that a full 26,000 sexual assaults actually occurred in the armed forces in 2011.
Marine Capt. Nicholas Stewart, whose 2009 sexual assault conviction was overturned in 2012, thinks the Marine Corps specifically, under political pressure, is rushing to convict innocent men. He tells Hope Hodge Seck at the Marine Corps Times,
It’s become very clear what the attitude now is: "We’re going to convict them all, and take down some innocent men and women to avenge the women in the past who did not see justice."
Seck cites a UMSC report from October 2013 that details increased convictions in sexual assault cases. Compare the period of January-June in 2012 and 2013, and sexual offense prosecutions in the Marine Corps doubled, from 29 to 58. Convictions jumped from 14 to 36. And punitive discharges went from 13 to 31.
While Capt. Stewart might see increased convictions as a sign of pressured, overzealous prosecutors, it's important to put these numbers in context. Thirty-six convictions during a 6-month period when about 2,500 assaults were reported and possibly 13,000 happened does not indicate that military prosecutors lining up innocent men and sending them to jail. Some of the Marines who were convicted were not discharged.
Still, some Marines insist that "the careers and reputations of good Marines are becoming casualties of the war on sex assault." Master Gunnery Sgt. Steven Fontenot has been accused by his ex-girlfriend, a senior enlisted Marine, of sexual assault. He says the claim is baseless, and tells Seck, "We have to find a way to deter people from filing false allegations. If you already knew what numbers to gamble on, wouldn’t you gamble on them?"
Some military members had been complaining of false reports even before Congress started to push for reform. Back in 2011, Charles Feldmann, a former military prosecutor who's now a defense attorney, told the Beaufort Gazette, "Most of the rape cases that I've defended in the military system never would have gone to trial in a civilian system because the prosecutor would say, 'There's no way I'm taking that to trial because I'm not going to get a conviction.'" Feldmann claimed that that military prosecutors were afraid their careers would be at risk if they didn't prosecute every "iffy rape case." The men's rights blog "False Rape Society" picked up on the story, claiming that the PC crowd demands the military to prosecute innocent men. The anonymous blogger insisted Feldmann's story underscores a "culture willing to treat innocent men as collateral damage in the 'more important,' politicized war on rape."
False reporting incidents are often thrown around by men's rights activists to discourage sexual assault victims from coming forward. But false accusations are very rare, and failure to get a conviction doesn't mean that a sexual assault didn't happen.
The military confirms that increased reporting is a result of increased faith in the system. Lt. Col. Wilkinson tells The Wire, "It is the [Department of Defense's] strategic goal to increase reports, because reports are the only way we have to provide victims with the care they need, independently investigate the allegations, and hold offenders appropriately accountable."