In the U.S. Senate, two female Democratic senators (Claire McCaskill and Kirsten Gillibrand) are championing two distinct ways to curb the longtime epidemic of sexual assaults in the military, with the issue, according to the latest reports in The New York Times and Politico, likely to be decided in the next few weeks. Based on my five and a half years as the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) for the Sexual Assault and Response Program (SAPR) at Naval Air Station Pensacola, I’m weighing in, emphatically, on Gillibrand’s side, which, in my view, brings a more realistic, albeit negative, view of commanding officers’ key role in the process.
I think it’s a given that we all want to stop sexual assault, take an aggressive approach against offenders, and offer educated and sensitive support to victims after any allegation of sexual assault. The U.S. Navy led the charge of changing the culture and view of women in the military after the Tailhook scandal of 1991. I was part of the Navy and Marine Corps’ struggle for change, first-hand and in the trenches. So for anyone to be led into thinking an effort is not being made is being led by confusing data, political agendas, and a conversation that always has to be tempered by political correctness.
But here’s the fundamental problem: When that sexual assault allegation comes in, as much as any commander would like to offer a hurting victim the immediate results she would like to see, such as offering junior enlisted people an open door policy to his/her office, and pledging swift and sure action against the alleged offender, those same commanders soon find they are bound by the rule of law and the fact that offenders are innocent until proven guilty. So for them, the “hang ’em high and ask questions later” approach is, for legal reasons, not an option.
Here’s problem number two: All allegations of sexual assault must be responded to immediately and with sensitivity to victims; an advocate must be provided the traumatized victims to walk them through the process; and a thorough, timely investigation must be made by the agency possessing legal jurisdiction over the matter. Commanding officers are not investigators, nor should they be.
On to related problem number three: Commanding officers are primarily held responsible for completing the military mission given them by their superiors, and ultimately by the Commander-in-Chief. They’re also responsible for the health and well-being of all their personnel. Not surprisingly, many choose to give priority to their primary mission when they believe an allegation presented to them is not a strong one.
Thus, an allegation and possible loss of a high testosterone male warrior, outstanding in military accomplishment, is seen by commanders as an obstacle to completing the military mission, so the warrior often prevails against the “whiney” female alleging rape, especially if it’s the proverbial “he said, she said” type case. The female victim can easily be discharged from the service, administratively or medically, but the strong and effective warrior is considered more valuable and difficult to replace.
Because the three problems described above keep commanders from dealing appropriately with sexual assault allegations, I have to go along with the proposal by Sen. Gillibrand (D-NY) to take the heavily conflicted commanding officer out of the decision-making process of whether or not a case moves forward. She’s also right when she says that victim advocates, wherever the cases are investigated and tried, should be kept alongside the victim. From my experience, victims are also best served if their advocate is not a part of their chain of command―in other words, is a civilian.
No matter how much we restructure the system, and regardless of how proficiently we train our multicultural, multi-gendered military force, sexual assault in the military will never go away completely. But Sen. Gillibrand’s proposed legislation should go a long way towards providing the suffering victim a fighting chance at justice while fostering an environment of offender accountability.
Phyllis Hain recently retired after twenty-one years as a U.S. Navy Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) and a Family Advocacy Educator, during which she was a member of the DC-based National Joint Task Force studying the U.S. problem of sexual assault in the military. Her autobiography, Diamond in the Dark, will be released November 15, 2013 (Bancroft Press).