Pentagon moves to curb sexual assault

Victims' advocates skeptical that new guidelines are sufficient

During a hearing on March 13, 2013 in Washington, D.C., former Marine Anu Bhagwati testifies as a policy expert on military sexual assault.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced new measures Thursday to address the epidemic of sexual assault in the U.S. military, an issue which has taken on increased urgency following a troubling rise in reports of misconduct across the armed forces.

"Sexual assault is a stain on the honor of our men and women who serve our country, as well as a threat to the discipline and the cohesion of our force. It must be stamped out," Hagel said in a statement at a hearing on sexual assault prevention.

Among the new measures outlined, the Pentagon announced that it will provide legal representation for sexual assault victims, ensure that all pretrial investigative hearings of sexual assault-related charges are conducted by military lawyers and provide commanders with options to transfer alleged perpetrators away from their victims.

"All of these measures will provide victims with additional rights, protections, and legal support, and help ensure that sexual assault-related investigations and judicial proceedings are conducted thoroughly and professionally," Hagel said.

Earlier this month, the military ordered that 60 service members be removed from their positions as recruiters, drill instructors and victim counselors following disciplinary screenings of military personnel.

Those removals followed a May report which estimated that 26,000 service members were sexually assaulted between 2011 and 2012 – a 37 percent increase of cases of unwanted sexual contact in the military.

"The initiatives announced today are substantial, but only a step along a path toward eliminating this crime from our military ranks," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Skepticism remains

Some advocates for victims of sexual assault were still skeptical about the anticipated effectiveness of the new guidelines. Protect Our Defenders (POD), an organization that provides support to military sexual assault survivors, believes the changes won't bring "fundamental reform."

"While we support efforts that attack the status quo, these changes are mostly small tweaks to a broken system," POD said in a statement.

The Pentagon will continue to allow the decision to prosecute those accused of sex crimes to remain with the chain of command, which according to POD robs victims of the opportunity to hold perpetrators accountable.

"Until you address the core, you're not going to actually solve the problem," Brian Purchia, POD spokesperson, told Al Jazeera, adding that "the numbers are what back us up."

A quarter of victims of sexual assault in the military indicated that their offender is someone in their chain of command, POD reported. Half of female victims stated that they did not report the crime because they believed nothing would happen, and of those few who did report, 60 percent were retaliated against.

Colleen Bushnell, a 40-year-old veteran from Albany, N.Y., who worked as a public affairs official at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, told Al Jazeera she was retaliated against when she reported that she was sexually assaulted by her commander, a woman, in 2004. "The critical issue we hear from victims every day is that commanders have let them down," Purchia added.

This skepticism was echoed by some on Capitol Hill.

"The Pentagon taking action is a good thing and these are positive steps forward, but it is not the leap forward required to solve the problem," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in a statement responding to Thursday's announcement.

In May, Gillibrand introduced legislation, the 2013 Military Justice Improvement Act, to remove decision-making power on cases of sexual assault out of the victim's chain of command – a measure some experts say would dramatically increase the number of reported incidents.

Nearly 80 percent of women serving in the military since Vietnam have experienced sexual assault, reports Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), an advocacy group serving military sexual assault survivors.

Yet, a stunning 86 percent of victims do not report the crime, according to the Department of Defense.

Partial victory

Anu Bhagwati, SWAN's executive director, said that Thursday's proposed solutions demonstrate that the DOD is still only wading in the shallow end on these issues.

"Small-scale military sexual assault solutions will not stem the cultural tide created by years of victim-blaming and retaliation," she said in an emailed statement to Al Jazeera.

But the Pentagon said that providing victims of sexual assault with their own legal representation in each branch – a measure already in place in the Air Force since January this year – was a step in the right direction.

Jessica Wright, acting Defense Secretary for Personnel and Readiness, said that the proposed measures will incorporate the "best practices" of the services and make them common throughout the armed forces to improve victim support.

"We think that [military] victims, like civilian victims, should have the right to an attorney," Purchia said. It's "a great step forward."

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