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Independent panel releases report on ending military sexual assault

New report to give recommendations to Congress on how to deal with sexual assault in the military

The number of reported cases of sexual assault in the military in 2013 went up by 50 percent from the year before. The Department of Defense says it’s because more people are comfortable coming forward, but many say the problem is only escalating.

For 2012, the Pentagon estimated that 26,000 sexual assaults took place but that only 3,300 of them were reported to authorities.

An independent panel is due to give recommendations to Congress this week on how to deal with the growing number of incidents. Among dozens of suggestions, it says there should be no more limitations on the authority of commanders to refer charges to military courts, that commanding officers should have clemency authority and that Congress should improve and enhance the response to male-on-male sexual assault.

During Al Jazeera America’s regular Sunday evening segment “The Week Ahead,” Thomas Drayton discussed the subject with Brian Lewis, a policy adviser at Protect Our Defenders, and Brigette McCoy, founder of Women’s Veterans for Social Justice, both survivors of sexual assault during their time in the service.

According to McCoy, some people are more confident in stepping forward, but many still feel limited in what they can say.

Lewis agreed and said that when he tried to take his case to authorities in 2000, he was told not to report it or he would face consequences. When he went ahead with the report, he was diagnosed with personality disorder and removed from service. He said a similar situation ensued when an airman tried to report a case last year.

“What that tells me is that nothing has changed in the last decade,” he said. “I know nothing has changed in the last 30 to 50 years.”

McCoy tells a similar story. When she tried to report her assault, she said, “the attitude was that I didn’t understand my senior and he was trying to help me, and thereby I was reporting it as him harassing me.” But she said, “he was not in any way trying to build my self-esteem or help me get promoted. He was using his own advances as a way to get me in a private space with him.”

In a rare move, a high-ranking officer, Jeffrey Sinclair, was relieved of his command, demoted and forced to retire earlier this month after being convicted of inappropriate conduct with women under his command. Sinclair was reduced in rank from brigadier general to lieutenant colonel before being retired from service.

But victims’ advocates say more should be done. And many veterans say they don’t get the help that they need. A recent Government Accountability Office report found that applications for post-traumatic stress disorder that are related to sexual trauma are more likely to be denied than those related to combat or other types of trauma.

The panel also recommends that Congress should not adopt either the legislation introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., or a rival bill put forward by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Gillibrand’s bill, backed earlier this month by Hillary Clinton, proposed that the handling of sexual assault cases should be taken outside the chain of command. McCaskill’s bill, which would preserve more military command authority over sexual assault cases, passed the Senate but has not been taken up by the House of Representatives.

Asked about the outside panel presenting its recommendations this week, Lewis said he doubts its neutrality. “The makeup of this supposedly independent panel is biased in favor of the Pentagon,” he said.

“The secretary of defense appointed a majority of this panel, and people who support the status quo, such as Congressman [Buck] McKeon [R-Calif.] and Sen. [Carl] Levin [D-Mich.], appointed part of the remainder,” he said. “So this ‘independent’ panel really wasn’t all that independent to begin with. It was heavily biased in favor of the military.”  

Drayton ended the conversation by asking the guests what they would like to see. McCoy said she wants to see the victims’ and survivors’ testimonies taken seriously; Lewis said he would like to see equality and more treatment provided for male survivors of military sexual assault.

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