The Pentagon has announced new steps to deter assaults and make it easier to prosecute offenders, a move that follows President Obama’s recent remark that sexual assault “has no place” in the U.S. military.
Still, many victims believe it will be difficult to change a military culture that makes it tough for the victims to report these crimes.
For victims, the nightmare starts with the attack. Many say that things get worse when they try to do something about it.
The Invisible War, a documentary that is being released in theaters this week, tells the stories of sexual assault victims who say the military’s command structure placed obstacles in their way when they tried to hold the aggressors accountable. The film, which won an award at the Sundance Film Festival in January, argues that a deeply ingrained culture of male authority figures makes justice hard to find.
In fact, the Pentagon has acknowledged this. Air Force Maj. Gen. Mary Kay Hertog is the outgoing head of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. She says getting victims to report can be a huge challenge.
“We anticipate maybe about 14 or 15 percent of people who have been sexually assaulted come forward to report,” Hertog says.
In April, the Pentagon changed a number of procedures so more crimes could be reported. For example, some victims fear that if they file a complaint, they might have to work side by side with the perpetrator while the investigation is under way.
So Hertog says the Pentagon made a key change: Victims are now entitled to demand an immediate transfer.
Another change: Many victims say that initially, they were too intimidated to report these crimes but changed their minds later on.
The new policy says evidence from rape cases will be kept for 50 years, which helps those who need time before they feel ready to file a complaint. It also helps victims apply for veterans benefits to deal with the consequences of an assault.
Challenging The Command Structure
The huge role of hierarchy in the military may be the hardest hurdle to overcome. No one below colonel or Navy captain can dismiss an assault allegation, the Pentagon announced.
Yet this still requires that victims report an alleged crime up the chain of command. Kate Weber says she was raped while in the service in the 1990s and was urged by superiors to drop the issue.
“I want them out of my chain of command. I don’t want them to be my direct supervisor, I don’t want them to know my supervisor, I don’t want them to know my rapist. I don’t want affiliation between that rapist and those people,” Weber says.
The Pentagon has resisted the idea of a different line of command when officers can address the issue.
“As a commander, you’re responsible for maintaining your good order and discipline. So in order to do that, you’ve got to be able to impose discipline,” Hertog says. “We own this problem. We must fix this problem.”
The idea is that this problem must be solved within the military to maintain the trust that commanders rely on. But Kirby Dick, director of The Invisible War, says sexual perpetrators abuse the same concept of trust that is ingrained in boot camp.
Dick says recruits are taught from the first day that they are serving with their brothers and sisters — that they have to be willing to take a bullet for them.
“So this idea of trusting someone else is built up to such an extent that oftentimes it makes these people very vulnerable,” Dick says.
Dick says service members are vulnerable to an abuse of the trust they were taught to respect. So if the Pentagon wants more people to report sexual assault crimes, victims will have to believe that the leadership will be watching their back.