Cases of rape and murder within our military ranks often go unreported and unexamined due to the culture of fear that continues to be perpetuated—fear that women won’t be believed, that the abuse will get worse, that they will lose their jobs, or even lose their lives. For instance, take the case of LeVena Johnson, who was found dead in a military contractor’s tent in Iraq in 2005 with a gunshot wound to her head. The army ruled her death a suicide. Her family believed otherwise: “Questions were raised when LaVena’s family viewed her body. There were suspicious bruises, and while the military claimed that this right-handed soldier had shot herself in the head with an M-16 rifle, the gunshot wound was on the left side of her head. But the truth began to make itself known when the family received the autopsy report and photos they requested under the Freedom of Information Act: The 5-foot-tall, 100-pound woman had been struck in the face with a blunt instrument, probably a weapon. Her nose had been broken, and her teeth knocked backwards. There were bruises, teeth marks and scratches on the upper part of her body. Her back and right hand had been doused with a flammable liquid and set on fire. Her genital area was bruised and lacerated, and lye had been poured into her vagina. The debris found on her person suggested her body had been dragged” (laprogressive.com). While the evidence clearly showed that this young woman had not taken her own life, to date no one has been charged with her murder.
The US military estimates that 86% of sexual assaults go unreported. In fiscal year 2010, the Department of Defense (DOD) stated that 2,617 service members reported that they had been sexually assaulted. If that number does indeed represent only 14% of all assaults, then 19,000 service members were assaulted during that year. In fiscal year 2011, there were 3,192 reports of sexual assault made. Applying the same 14% reporting estimate results in over 22,500 sexual assaults in the military in fiscal year 2011 (DOD Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military). What is even more disturbing is that out of the total number of assaults that are reported, only 8% end in court-marital convictions (NBC News). Clearly the system is broken.
Last week Nancy Parrish, head of the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, asking the commission to conduct an independent audit of those investigations. In addition to the lack of convictions, one of her major concerns was that many of those who were convicted later had their charges reduced to adultery or indecent language, allowing them to remain on active duty (NBC News). In other words, very few perpetrators are actually being held accountable for the crimes they commit.
At the heart of the matter is the question of whether or not the military should retain control of these cases. Commission Chair Martin Castro asked that very question: “Would it not be better to have a civilian process in place, where cases that aren’t being charged (but) that should be charged in the military might have a fresh and different view — in a civilian process?” (NBC News). Is the military protecting some of its own to the detriment of others? Are they protecting male service members while ignoring or punishing females who report assaults?
Many within the military disagree with the idea that sexual assault cases should be tried in civilian courts, believing that pulling these cases out of military jurisdiction would undermine the authority of military commanders. Yet if victims are not coming forward out of fear of retaliation, and perpetrators are being protected by their own, perhaps it is time to examine the system more closely. That is precisely what the Commission on Civil Rights is being asked to do. Let’s hope they accept that responsibility.