“This We [Won’t] Defend”: Sexual Assault in the US Military

Valeria Pelet

1 in 3. According to the Department of Defense, that number represents how many women in the military have been sexually assaulted. The Veterans Administration reports that close to 20% of female veterans have been victims of some form of sexual assault. At this rate, a woman has a greater chance of being raped by a fellow soldier than being killed in action.

Even worse than these statistics, though, is the sheer unresponsiveness of the military itself. Apart from creating SAPRO (Sexual Assault and Prevention Office) in 2004, the US military has done little to address the sexual assault epidemic that has plagued every one of its branches for decades. Rhetoric calling for a “zero tolerance policy” has become nothing more than an ode to empty promises—promises that have left hundreds of thousands of servicewomen—as well as servicemen—desolate, spurned, and gasping for justice.



Accurately measuring the scope of sexual assault within the military is almost inconceivable because of scant reporting of the committed crimes. The DoD recognizes that about 80% of these episodes go unreported. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, commenting on this shroud of silence, has estimated that in 2011 alone, the actual number of sexual assaults could have totaled 19,000, dwarfing the official figure of 3,000 reported cases.

This widespread taciturnity is due in large part to a dearth of legal prosecution. For example, of those 3,000 reported cases, less than 200 ended in court-martial convictions. One of the main issues that accounts for this disparity is that the majority of reported cases never make it to a court-martial. The military’s chain of command makes it so that the victim must report a crime to his/her superior, which, in most of these cases, is the unit commander. That person then has the discretion to authorize a criminal investigation or put a stop to it altogether. Many times, victims are discouraged or intimidated from reporting because the unit commander might be friends with the rapist or be the rapist himself.

For those who do report, their sexual assault cases are handled according to the reporting option they choose to file, which could either be restricted or unrestricted. The restricted reporting option’s primary aim is to protect the victim’s identity, for it “allows a sexual assault victim to confidentially disclose the details of his or her assault to specified individuals and receive medical treatment and counseling, without triggering the official investigative process.” Through this option, a victim can go to a base’s medical emergency room and be put in contact with his/her local Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC), who will assign the victim a Victim Advocate (VA). The VA later informs the victim’s preference to the SARC, who will proceed to explicate the incident to the unit commander without jeopardizing the victim’s anonymity. Back at the emergency room, the victim will be offered a forensic examination and appropriate follow-up medical treatment. Ideally, this option gives the victim more time to ponder the decision of whether or not an investigation should begin. Unrestricted reporting follows the same protocol as restricted reporting with the distinction of having the VA communicate the victim’s allegations to both the adequate Criminal Investigative Service as well as the victim’s unit commander. This action automatically signals the desire for the start of “an official investigation of the crime.”

However, many female soldiers may choose not to report sexual assault at all. The gathering of evidence that occurs during an investigation can be very hard, especially since fellow soldiers can storm into victim’s quarters and destroy photographs, diaries, and other articles that might incriminate them. In addition, women in the military face high rates of sexual trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—in fact, PTSD rates for women in the military are higher than those for men who have served in combat roles. These factors combined can be enough to deter the filing of an official report.


It seems as though the magnitude of repeat offenses has not disconcerted the military, for its continued­—almost cyclical—reaction to sexual assault has allowed the problem to be routinely trivialized as a military secret.

The past couple of decades, though rife with scandal, have not galvanized the military to overhaul the inner workings of its legal system. It took three instances of media-documented misconduct—the Tailhook scandal in 1991, the Aberdeen scandal in 1996, and the Air Force Academy scandal in 2003—for the military to establish SAPRO, an organization that stresses rape prevention and victim care. SAPRO’s efforts, however, have been lukewarm at best.

While SAPRO focuses on prevention and response, its policies depend on tactics that rely on victim-blaming as the source of the problem. Dr. Kaye Whitely, former director of SAPRO, encouraged risk reduction strategies such as setting up a “buddy system” and a poster campaign with slogans that told soldiers, “Don’t risk it… Ask her when she’s sober.”

It is because of previous efforts that many rape victims have called SAPRO “a joke” and something that “is not taken seriously.” It assumes that women should always be on the lookout for rapists in their own stations and scolds men for not approaching these women in more “gentlemanlike” ways.

By no stretch of the imagination is sexual assault in the military something that can be avoided by plastering a poster or showing an instructional video. It is an extremely disturbing and egregious matter consisting of predators taking advantage of victims due in large part to an absence of criminal prosecution.

California Congresswoman Jackie Speier has stated, “We should be troubled that when victims are deposed, they are asked about their sexual histories, as if that were relevant to being raped, and that there are no sentencing guidelines for military juries in sexual-assault and rape cases, where the predators often get slapped with 30 days in jail or demotion in rank, and then it’s business as usual.”


Perhaps the most upfront challenges to the military’s inaction towards sexual assault in recent memory have been The Invisible War, Kirby Dick’s gripping documentary, and a federal lawsuit filed by 17 survivors back in February 2011.

On the one hand, the lawsuit was dismissed in December of that year. The court ruled that “rape is an occupational hazard of military service.” An appeal was filed shortly after.

On the other hand, The Invisible War has been met with critical acclaim as well as numerous awards, including the Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award. The film provides a painstaking account of survivors’ testimonies regarding sexual assault. It argues that having victims report crimes to unit commanders is intrinsically problematic.

Until quite recently, the ultimate decision to prosecute allegations of sexual assault lay solely in the hands of unit commanders. It has not been uncommon for unit commanders, swayed by conflicts of interest, to side with the accused, putting victims at fault, or to simply ignore the victim’s allegations so as not to cause any “trouble.” One of the documentary’s commentators explains that in the unit commander’s minds, to have a sexual assault occur under their watch would indicate a loss of control, which could adversely affect potential job prospects.

Fortunately, Secretary of Defense Panetta rescinded that license from unit commanders in April 2012. The Invisible War takes partial credit for his sudden course of action. Nevertheless, the restricted/unrestricted report system remains in place, and it is far too soon to tell if Panetta’s move has resulted in a substantial growth of prosecution rates.

One of the most recent pieces of legislation affecting the military comes in the form of President Obama’s new military budget. Passed earlier this year, it includes a small but significant clause that allows military health plans to cover abortion costs in cases of incest or rape.

While these measures are indeed a step forward, they have not cracked the complicity that underlies much of the military’s insular culture. Much more is still needed if the military is ever going to stop handling sexual assault in a way that merely helps victims cope with having been sexually assaulted instead of treating it as a problem of accountability.

However distorted the official numbers might be, it is clear that sexual assault in the military is not simply a women’s issue. The lack of response by the military, our government, and civilians turns this into a societal issue that goes beyond the barracks and beckons to be addressed immediately. And frankly, that’s not soon enough.

One response to ““This We [Won’t] Defend”: Sexual Assault in the US Military

  1. Pingback: “This We [Won't] Defend,” Sexual Assault in the U.S. Military | Versus News·

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