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Voices of service members who experienced abuse in the ranks

The disappearance and murder of Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen has sparked an outpouring of stories from other service members. Mostly female, they say that they also suffered sexual harassment and abuse in the ranks, but felt that the military’s reporting system was not built to help them. Nick Schifrin reports, and we hear some service members' experiences, in their own words.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    Why is sexual harassment so prevalent in the military, and what can be done about it?

    For that, we get two views.

    First, retired Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Corn was a former Army lawyer who now teaches criminal law and national security at South Texas College of Law. And former captain Melissa Bryant served nine years in the Army as an intelligence officer, including in Iraq. She's now a veterans advocate and a legislative and policy consultant.

    Welcome to you both to the "NewsHour."

    Secretary Esper was quoted earlier saying that they had made some progress. And I want to list some of the things the military has done over the last few years. DOD is now required to release sexual assault data every year. There's now mandatory training for all service members on what is sexual assault, how to prevent it.

    Legal officers known as special victims advocates are assigned to people to report — who report sexual assault. And the chain of command at the colonel or Navy captain level have to be notified of sexual assault cases.

    Melissa Bryant, have those changes made a difference?

  • Capt. Melissa Bryant (retired):

    Those gradual changes were absolutely necessary for improved justice. It's been gradually implemented by DOD, but it still doesn't take away influence out of the hands of commanders and put it into those special prosecutors that you just mentioned.

    The fact that Vanessa Guillen stated to her family that she feared retaliation means that it has not been enough. And we need to take that unlawful command influence out of the military justice system when we're talking about sex crimes like this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Geoffrey Corn, Geoffrey Corn: do you think those changes have made a difference?

  • Lt. Col. Geoffrey Corn (retired):

    I mean, they absolutely have made a difference.

    And one of the differences has been the increased number of reports of sexual misconduct in the military, which is a double-edged sword, because the military is criticized because of increased sexual assault numbers. But those numbers reflect an increase in reporting.

    I don't think they reflect an increase in the propensity of these offenses to occur.

    Look, nobody, nobody in uniform deserves to suffer the way these women suffered. And there are male victims as well. But there is no evidence that there is a substantial amount of command influence that's implicating the willingness of these convening authorities to send cases to trial when they're presented to them.

    The challenge has been getting them notified of these incidents, which is why, as you noted, DOD imposed a requirement that all incidents of sexual misconduct be reported up to the colonel or captain level. That's to ensure that junior level commanders don't sweep them under the rug.

  • Capt. Melissa Bryant:

    But when you're looking at the fact and you're looking at the overwhelming anecdotal evidence that unfortunately does not get captured by the reporting, then that's when we recognize that there is a very real fear of retaliation that still exists.

    There is a very real command influence that exists over said commanders. And so, yes, while that may be elevated, that convening authority decision, to two- and three-star general officer, flag officer rank, it still does not improve the issue of bias. That bias is still there.

    We need to be able to ensure that any form of bias whatsoever, implicit bias, has been removed from the chain of command and removed from the — from anywhere within the procedures for any pending trial.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Geoffrey Corn, you mentioned increased numbers.

    Just to put a number on that, Protect Our Defenders say sexual assaults jumped 38 percent from 2016 to 2018. And, also, there are surveys that show underreported assaults have also grown. So, is that not an indication that the problem is, in fact, getting worse?

  • Lt. Col. Geoffrey Corn:

    It is actually a manifestation that the efforts to enhance the probability of reporting have been improved.

    And I think there's a point of consensus between me and Melissa. And I can tell you, as a private, the idea that I would go make a report against my sergeant or my captain or my lieutenant was inconceivable.

    The institution, by its very nature, makes reports by subordinates to superiors extremely difficult, particularly when they perceive there's misconduct. So there is a lot of work that continues and needs to continue to give soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors at every level the absolute confidence that they are — if they're candid and honest about an accusation of misconduct, they will not be subject to retribution.

  • Capt. Melissa Bryant:

    Listen, I was a 20-year-old cadet who was at Fort Hood with an M.P. unit. I can understand what — the pressure that a specialist like Vanessa Guillen could feel.

    The reason why you need this is because we live and work among one another. And that's why you need to remove that bias. We need to be able to ensure that that survivor is able to come forward and not face any one necessarily from their unit who may have undue influence over the outcomes of justice.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Melissa Bryant, Geoffrey Corn, we will have to leave it there. Thanks very much to you both.

  • Lt. Col. Geoffrey Corn:

    Thank you.

  • Capt. Melissa Bryant:

    Thank you.

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