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Top Brass, Lawmakers Grapple With Rising Levels of Military Sexual Assault

May 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
With sexual assaults in the military on the rise, Congress and Defense Department officials debate what should be done to prosecute perpetrators and prevent assaults from happening in the first place. Kwame Holman reports on efforts to subdue the crisis.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next, an update on the mounting problem of sexual assaults in the military.

A recent Pentagon survey estimated 26,000 service members were victims of sexual crimes last year, up 35 percent from 2010. Only 3,400 of those assaults were actually reported to authorities. The latest case came yesterday. An Army sergeant at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was charged with secretly videotaping female cadets in the bathrooms and showers.

No one disputes the gravity of the problem. The military’s top official, Gen. Martin Dempsey, has called it a crisis. But there are arguments on what to do.

Kwame Holman reports on efforts to prosecute the crimes and keep the assaults from happening in the first place.

KWAME HOLMAN: At a Naval base in Washington, the emphasis is on prevention. Senior officers participate in a training program.

The 90-minute class is called “Take the Helm.” The teachers, some of the Navy’s most experienced instructors and lawyers, show a movie depicting what might be a typical experience for off-duty sailors. In one scene, they’re drinking and partying, carousing that could end with a sexual assault.

WOMAN: This is not my room.

KWAME HOLMAN: In another, sailors on board ship engage in sexually suggestive behavior. The officers are given pointers on how to recognize potentially dangerous situations and how to intervene to stop them.

MAN: Think back to the hotel party. We know that alcohol was involved. How does alcohol play a role in sexual assault? What does it do for us?

WOMAN: It lowers our judgment.


KWAME HOLMAN: Classes such as these are a high priority. Everyone in uniform is required to attend at some point.

Senior Chief Ronald Shasky is a Navy instructor.

SENIOR CHIEF RONALD SHASKY, U.S. Navy: We have evidence that, through bystander intervention where our new sailors coming into the Navy are acclimated and educated on being empowered to step in when sailors are in bad situations.

KWAME HOLMAN: Lt. Commander Nell Evans is a Navy lawyer.

LT. COMMANDER NELL EVANS, U.S. Navy Lawyer: We have a raised awareness level. People are now familiar with what these crimes actually are, especially those contact crimes, where primarily they wouldn’t have considered that sexual assault a long time ago. So I think we see this increase.

KWAME HOLMAN: Grabbing, inappropriate touching.

NELL EVANS: Grabbing, inappropriate touching in the bathing suit area.

KWAME HOLMAN: Another part of the Navy’s effort involves intervening with sailors off-duty. In one small-scale experiment, senior non-commissioned officers on shore patrol in San Diego look out for drinking that might get out of hand.

The Defense Department estimates half of female service members who were assaulted said they or their assailant had been drinking. But is better training up and down the ranks and awareness of the problem of sexual assault enough to solve the problem? Many outside the military say no.

KWAME HOLMAN: A bipartisan group of senators wants another response.

New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand says it’s time to change how military justice is administered. Men and women in the military operate in close proximity and under the strict control of their commanders. Currently, those commanders have sole authority to decide whether a sexual assault case is prosecuted and the power to reverse a conviction afterward.

But commanders can be show favoritism and bias when handling sexual assault in their ranks, says Gillibrand. Her proposal would remove commanders from the judicial process any time a subordinate is charged with any serious crime.

Instead, the decision whether to prosecute would be made by professional investigators and lawyers.

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND, D-N.Y.: Today, we are standing strong in united front to take on these issues with new legislation that will fundamentally remove the decision-making from the chain of command and give that discretion to an experienced military prosecutor, where it belongs. And this is the only way that we can provide the unbiased justice that our victims need.

KWAME HOLMAN: Former Airman 1st Class Jessica Hinves was an F-15 mechanic. She recently was profiled in the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Invisible War.” She says she was raped in January 2009 at Nellis Air Force base.

RET. AIRMAN 1ST CLASS JESSICA HINVES, U.S. Air Force: He pinned me against a wall in front of everybody and was telling me all these sexual things he was going to do.

I made it clear that I wasn’t interested in him. The advancements were not flattering. And the next night, I don’t know what indication he had to come into my room. So, I let him know even before the rape, when he was just touching me, that that’s not what I wanted, that I wanted that to stop. I wasn’t — I didn’t want him in my room.

KWAME HOLMAN: Hinves’ case was investigated by the Air Force for more than a year. And she said, during that time, some fellow service members blamed her for what happened.

JESSICA HINVES: People were upset at me that I was getting him in trouble. That’s what people were telling me. Why are you getting him in trouble? Why are you doing this? You know this is his life. This is his career. It’s just sex. Just get over it. You know, move on. Move on from this.

KWAME HOLMAN: Hinves says the Air Force investigation found enough evidence to warrant a court-martial on rape charges for the assailant. But the colonel in charge of Hinves’ unit overruled that decision.

JESSICA HINVES: Two days before the court hearing, his commander called me on a conference at the JAG office, and he said he didn’t believe that he acted like a gentleman, but there wasn’t reason to prosecute.

So, we got — I was speechless. I didn’t even know that was an option. Legal had been telling me this is going to go through court. We had the court date set for several months. And two days before, his commander stopped it. I later found out the commander had no legal education or background, and he’d only been in command for four days.

KWAME HOLMAN: Hinves’ story is not an isolated case. At the Capitol Hill news conference last week, others said the chain of command had thwarted justice for them.

RET.TECH SGT. JENNIFER NORRIS, U.S. Air Force: I am a veteran and a survivor of rape and harassment in the military.

KWAME HOLMAN: Former Air Force Technical Sergeant Jennifer Norris:

JENNIFER NORRIS: When I did come forward to my command, I became one of far too many who fall victim to manipulation and abuse of authority by perpetrators who are higher ranking and have more credibility than those who are in charge.

KWAME HOLMAN: Men were the victims in more than half of the estimated 26,000 sexual assaults in the military last year. Brian Lewis was a petty officer 3rd Class in the Navy.

PETTY OFFICER 3RD CLASS BRIAN LEWIS, U.S. Navy: A superior noncommissioned officer raped me while I was stationed aboard the USS Frank Cable in Guam. After the rape, I was told by my command not to file a formal report with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

When I was reassigned to seek medical help, my psychiatrist told me that I was lying about my rape and diagnosed me with a personality disorder.

KWAME HOLMAN: The new defense secretary, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, has vowed to tackle the problem.

DEFENSE SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL, United States: This department may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime and the perception that there is tolerance of it could very well undermine our ability to effectively carry out the mission and to recruit and retain the good people we need. That is unacceptable to me and the leaders of this institution.

KWAME HOLMAN: Hagel has ordered rules requiring direct accountability from commanders for achieving a non-harassing environment and more help for sexual assault victims.

And since only Congress can change military law, Hagel wants new legislation to prohibit commanders from reversing court-martial convictions for serious crimes. In March, it came to light that an Army general had overturned the conviction of a subordinate, fueling the drive to eliminate that power.

A House bill introduced today by Ohio Republican Michael Turner would do just that. But Turner would not go as far as Sen. Gillibrand and take the cases out of the military chain of command. Instead, he would move adjudication up the chain for generals and admirals to decide, instead of lower-ranking colonels.

REP. MICHAEL TURNER, R-Ohio: Our goal has been to raise it in the chain of command, making it so that you don’t have the people who are actually all working together and have contact and bias, relationships, and also then at the same time making it a criteria for performance evaluation and promotion as to how they handle those cases.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the Pentagon’s director of sexual assault prevention and response says commanders can and should continue to have authority over serious cases such as sexual assault, Army Maj. Gen. Gary Patton.

MAJ. GEN. GARY PATTON, U.S. Army: We need to have commanders more involved in the solution to this problem, not less involved. And we want them more involved because we know it’s important to set the right climate. Commanders lead by example.

KWAME HOLMAN: Sexual assault prevention trainer Lieutenant Commander Evans says taking away leaders’ ability to decide punishments diminishes their authority.

NELL EVANS: The commanding officer makes the ship go. He is the end-all/be-all. And if he doesn’t have the authority to put his money where is mouth is, then chaos can break out and he has no backbone. He has nothing to fall back on. So it’s so important that he be able to administer swift justice if necessary.

KWAME HOLMAN: Sen. Gillibrand told us she would protect that authority for less serious offenses.

KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: We have made exceptions for military specific crimes, things like not charging up a hill, or going AWOL, absent without leave. Those are the kinds of crimes that we think a military commander should handle, because it does help them maintain good order and discipline.

But for these violent, serious crimes like rape, and murder and sexual assault, they really need to be elevated to a criminal justice system that is run by trained prosecutors and judges.

MAN: Together, we can beat this problem.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, sexual assault prevention training continues for every sailor in the Navy. The Army, Air Force and Marines all have similar programs.

MAN: What are you doing?

JEFFREY BROWN: You can read more about Jessica Hinves’ story and how she’s coping after leaving the Air Force. That’s on our home page.