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This Veteran’s Day, Support Survivors of Sexual Violence

By Lynn Hall

Flags on Veteran's Day
Photo credit: Southern Arkansas University

Last month, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) released the results of their annual member survey, and the statistics regarding military sexual assault were, as always, alarming. Of the women who responded, thirty-five percent said they had been the victim of sexual assault while serving. Of those survivors, sixty percent did not report the crime. It’s easy to understand their reluctance when, of those who did report, seventy-one percent of the survivors said they experienced retaliation because of their accusations.

I’m going to repeat that last figure: more than two thirds of the survivors who reported to their chain of command that they had been raped by a fellow soldier experienced retaliation.

Another recent study said that of the women who report a rape in the military, one third have lost their careers by the following year.

While these figures are shocking, they are not new. I’m reminded of the Harvey Weinstein story which broke last month. Those of us who pay attention to sexual assault allegations had already known Harvey Weinstein was a serial predator, and yet there wasn’t broad public outrage until The New Yorker exposed the extent of his crimes in one horrific article. For both the military and Hollywood, it is an open secret that there are widespread abuses against women with little to no accountability.

Since 2012, there has been a near constant trickle of media coverage surrounding military sexual assault. That’s progress, yes, but the outrage against the military hasn’t stuck as it has recently against Hollywood. We haven’t yet reached a tipping point where the Department of Defense (DOD) is held accountable for these abuses. Each time the public looks away, the DOD reverses forward progress.

Since Beacon published my memoir about rape at the Air Force Academy, Caged Eyes, last February, I’ve had my finger on the pulse of this dialogue in far greater ways than I have in the past.

For starters, I’ve heard from numerous women who have told me their stories of having been raped while serving. Many of those women were veterans, but I’ve also heard from a substantial number of women actively serving, including current Air Force Academy cadets. I’ve sat with them and heard the details of their stories with coffees in our hands and tears on our faces.

Since my memoir’s publication, I’ve also had the privilege of being invited to serve on the Advisory Board for Protect our Defenders, the nation’s leading nonprofit fighting sexual assault within the military. Protect Our Defenders connects survivors with pro bono lawyers, serves in an advisory capacity to Congress, and weighs in on cases in the media. I’m honored to be among their voices.

One legislative effort Protect Our Defenders has been deeply involved with has been Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA). Currently, commanders hold decision-making power in criminal cases. They get to decide if a case proceeds to a court martial, and they can even overturn convictions. The MJIA would transfer this power to military prosecutors. Unfortunately, the Senate has filibustered against the MJIA repeatedly, but Gillibrand and Protect our Defenders remain undeterred.

The fact is the military is not doing enough to protect survivors and prosecute perpetrators. Of the IAVA survey respondents I referenced above, sixty-eight percent of women and forty-two percent of men think the DOD is not addressing military sexual assault effectively enough.

It’s no wonder that troops do not have confidence in the command structure when last week USA Today reported that since 2013, the military has seen more than 500 cases of serious misconduct among its generals and admirals. These cases include many instances of sexual harassment.

Abuses have also been reported in the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Offices (SAPRO). In other words, the very offices overseeing victim services have been charged with criminal misconduct. The Washington Post recently reported that in the past year alone, the Army has investigated rape allegations by ten of its SAPRO officers.

I’m going to repeat that statistic too: In one year, ten Army officers who are responsible for victim care have themselves been charged with rape.

Last year, the deputy director of the Air Force’s office of sexual assault prevention at the Pentagon resigned after complaints that he was creating “an intimidating and offensive working environment” with sexually inappropriate comments. This isn’t the first time the media has blown the whistle with SAPRO misconduct, and yet, the criminal behavior continues.

Let’s not forget that the military is built upon hierarchy, adherence to commands, and—ostensibly—integrity. If the DOD wanted to crack down on these offenses and hold officers accountable for sexual harassment and assault and retaliation from these cases, they could. Yet, news article after news article reports on these heinous crimes—all the while victim’s lives continue to be destroyed—without any signs of true change.

As it has been widely reported, the shooter in Sutherland Springs last Sunday was a former Air Force airman who had been convicted of domestic violence and child abuse, and had been accused repeatedly of sexual assault and sexual harassment. Yet, he was discharged from the military in 2012 without the information of his convictions being relayed to the FBI. Evidence is emerging that this was not an oversight in his case alone, and that the DOD routinely fails to communicate to civilian criminal databases. This week Stars and Stripes recounted that the Pentagon has known of reporting lapses for twenty years. Again, if cracking down on criminal behavior were of high regard to the military, these oversights wouldn’t occur.

The Sutherland Springs shooter has not been the only criminal to be discharged from the military emboldened to perpetrate on the civilian population. I know this first hand. In 2002, my own perpetrator violently raped a disabled teenage civilian. Reports of these cases, now in combination with the horrific shooting in Sutherland Springs, gives us even further reason to find outrage with the DOD.

This Veteran’s Day, support the work of organizations like Protect Our Defenders and politicians such as Senator Gillibrand. Read and share books like my memoir, Caged Eyes, or fellow Beacon Press author Helen Benedict’s book The Lonely Soldier. Most, of all, care. The public’s demands for justice resulted in Harvey Weinstein’s demise. The same can happen if we decide to hold the DOD responsible as well.


About the Author 

Lynn Hall is a memoirist, essayist, and activist in the movement to end sexual violence. She is also a mountaineer who has summited each of Colorado’s 14,000-foot-tall peaks and a runner who has completed a 100-mile ultramarathon. She lives in Boulder. Follow her on Twitter at @LynnKHall and visit her website.