Why the Military Has a Sexual Assault Problem

Brian Lewis, former Petty Officer Third Class, U.S. Navy, pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 13, 2013, during the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel hearing on sexual assault in the military. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Brian Lewis, former Petty Officer Third Class, U.S. Navy, pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 13, 2013, during the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel hearing on sexual assault in the military. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

May 10, 2013

The military’s campaign to prevent sexual assault largely centers on telling servicemen not to have sex with women when they’re drunk.

Last year, posters were distributed with the headline, “Ask Her When She’s Sober.” The posters have since been scrubbed from the MyDuty.Mil website, which now has a video showing service members watching a colleague who’s getting too forward with a woman at a bar.

“Man, that’s all we need, is to get put on lockdown again,” one of the guys in the video complains, before getting up to intervene.

The military also uses a video game that includes another bar scene: “Loud music, cold beer, hot girls, game on,” the narrator intones. Players then must choose whether to stop certain behaviors. If they fail, the game ends with a female private being raped in the barracks. She reports the assault, and ends up leaving the service.

The focus is “very 1950s,” said Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for veterans and active-duty members.

More significantly, the campaign overlooks the actual demographics of sexual assault in the military: According to its own data, more than half of the military’s victims are men.

The Pentagon’s annual report on sexual assault in the military uses data from a survey of active-duty members to extrapolate an estimate of how many have experienced some form of assault.

Its most recent report, released this week, estimated that 26,000 service members experienced “unwanted sexual contact,” which includes rape, attempted rape and unwanted sexual touching.  Of these, an estimated 12,100 were women — and 13,900 were men. Fewer than half of the incidents involved alcohol.

Due to the much smaller number of women in the military — there are about 200,000 compared to 1.2 million men — women still bear a greater proportion of these assaults. But the numbers are still striking because attacks against men are so often overlooked.

And while the numbers of assaults spiked considerably from last year’s estimate of 19,000, the number of reported incidents documented by the DoD remained largely the same, rising only 6 percent from 3,192 to 3,374. (Read the full report here (pdf).)

In other words, men and women in the military are enduring sexual assault in greater numbers than last year, but still only a fraction choose to report what happened to them.

The problem may have reached a point where “it could very well undermine our ability to effectively carry out the mission and to recruit and retain the good people we need,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged this week at a press briefing announcing the report.

“We need cultural change, where every service member is treated with dignity and respect, where all allegations of inappropriate behavior are treated with seriousness, where victims’ privacy is protected, where bystanders are motivated to intervene and where offenders know that they will be held accountable by strong and effective systems of justice.”

The Chain of Command

One reason sexual assault festers in the military is its leadership structure, according to former service men and women who have been assaulted in the military and advocates who work with them.

In the military, sexual assaults are handled within the chain of command. That means that a victim’s commanding officer has the ability to intervene at any point: to stop an investigation, reduce a sentence or even set aside a conviction.

For example, a top Air Force official recently overturned the court-martial conviction of an officer for sexual assault. Lt. Gen. Susan Helms hadn’t attended the trial and offered no public explanation for her decision, nor is she required to do so.

Last year, then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced new policies, including a 24/7 hotline for military members and a special victims unit dedicated to investigating sexual assaults. He also instituted a requirement that all unit commanders report sexual assault allegations up the chain of command, so the cases can be handled at a special court-martial level.

But there are sometimes weak links in the chain of command.

One former soldier told Parrish’s group in a statement that she was sexually harassed and ultimately raped by a superior while deployed in Iraq.

The woman said she reported the assault to several officers in her chain of command, but was told that she’d be charged with adultery if she pursued the complaint. One officer even told her that he had mentioned the incident to her attacker, who said she had come onto him — and that she should be charged with harassing him.

She endured further threats, and was assigned to duties below her rank. She was medically retired in 2012. “I am one of the ‘unreported statistics’ — not without trying, I assure you of that,” she wrote. “He is free and able to do it again as long as he wears the uniform. The uniform represents a protective shield if you’re a rapist with rank. My life gets ruined, and he gets promoted.”

Military leadership structure provides a strong incentive for commanders to avoid pursuing sexual assault allegations in their ranks: It can hurt their careers.

Commanders are responsible for keeping their troops disciplined and in good order.

“You don’t want to be the commander that calls your superior to say you’ve had an allegation of rape in your unit,” said Brian Lewis, a former Navy petty officer third class who says he was raped by another sailor when he was 20 years old. “It makes you look bad, and affects your ability to be considered for a promotion.”

As the wars wind down and the military shrinks in size, commanders anxious to ensure they move up may feel especially compelled to make sure sexual assault doesn’t happen in their unit — at least, not on paper.

“I Was Viewed As the Problem Child”

Lewis knows this firsthand. After he was raped, he said he reported the attack to his commanding officer. “I thought my command would do the right thing,” he said. Instead, he said he was told not to report the crime to the Navy criminal investigators — or to tell anyone else.

Lewis said he lived in constant fear of running into his rapist again on the 600-foot-long ship. But he also was crushed by the betrayal from his command, who seemed to blame him for what had happened. “All of a sudden, I was viewed as the problem child,” he said.

He was moved to a different work station and disqualified from carrying a sidearm, which meant he could no longer stand watch on deck — a main duty for a sailor. At work, he said he was suddenly written up for minor violations: a scratch on his belt-buckle, a hanging thread on his uniform.

Lewis says other sailors, seeing the sanctions, assumed he’d done something wrong and kept away from him, not wanting to be branded a troublemaker by association.

“I had one person tell me, ‘I’d like to talk to you, but you’re not a good person to be around right now,'” he said.

After a few months, Lewis was removed from the ship and sent to a Navy psychiatrist in San Diego, who called him a liar, he said. “He wanted to know why I was tarnishing somebody’s good name,” Lewis said. The psychiatrist diagnosed Lewis with a personality disorder, which slated him for a general discharge, he said.

It’s one of the labels sexual assault victims receive in the military, according to advocates who have worked with victims, along with discharges for “weight-control failure,” or engaging in misconduct such as consuming alcohol, if the victim had drinks before the assault; or committing adultery, if the victim is married.

Within a year of his rape, Lewis was out of the military. Without an honorable discharge, he was on his own: He couldn’t get treatment from the VA for sexual trauma, or access to the GI bill to attend school. Lewis earned his bachelor’s degree anyway, and plans to attend law school in the fall. But he worries the general discharge on his record could hurt him when he tries to pass the bar.

Lewis testified about his assault earlier this year at a Senate hearing on sexual assault in the military, the first man to do so. (He’s pictured above; the full hearing transcript is here (pdf).) He said he doesn’t know where his rapist is now. Since the man was older, he may even have retired — with full benefits — from the Navy.

The psychiatrist, meanwhile, now holds a top position working with service members suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. His office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

What Can Be Done?

Advocates are trying to prevent what Lewis, the woman in Iraq, and countless others have endured. They want to remove sexual assault allegations from the chain of command to ensure investigations and trials are conducted fairly. They point to England and Canada, which have already done so in their militaries.

Lawmakers have proposed initiatives to address this problem and sexual assault in the military generally. There’s a bipartisan proposal in the House, sponsored by Reps. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) and Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) that would prohibit officers from altering or overturning a conviction for a major crime, such as a sexual assault. Those found guilty would be dishonorably discharged or dismissed.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, (D-NY), plans to introduce legislation next week that would send sexual assault cases outside the chain of command.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has also instructed the department to conduct a full review of the military justice process, including this provision.

But such changes will be controversial in the Pentagon.

There are recent indications that some leadership still struggles to understand the roots of sexual assault in the military: The Air Force’s top general this week blamed the problem on a “hook-up culture” among young women in civilian society who join the military. And the officer in charge of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention office, Lt. Col. Jeff Krusinski, was arrested for sexually assaulting a civilian woman, after he allegedly approached her in a parking lot and groped her. She fought him off and called 911.

At a March Senate hearing on sexual assault in the military, senior officers from all five branches of the military said that while they were committed to addressing sexual assault, they also strongly opposed stripping commanders of the power to intervene in military justice.

The judicial process should be reviewed, Vice Adm. Nanette DeRenzi, the Navy’s judge advocate general told the panel, but legislators should be “ever mindful of the second- and third-order effects” of restricting commanders’ authority.

The Marine Corps’ representative also said that such authority was important to retain. “They are responsible for setting command climate,” said Maj. Gen. Vaughn Ary, the commandant’s staff judge advocate. “They are responsible for the culture, and it is their leadership that we have to hold accountable. And they need to be able to hold everyone in their unit accountable to preserve that good order and discipline to accomplish their missions.”

Even if lawmakers get their way, the current proposals aren’t going to be enough to impose broad, structural change, said Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine officer and executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, an advocacy group.

“These numbers are not going to change with minor, Band-Aid proposals that [the Department of Defense and members of Congress] have attempted,” she said. “We need overwhelming, comprehensive criminal justice reform.”

Is that possible? Parrish, the victims’ advocate, says the military already made a major cultural change decades earlier, when it stamped out institutional racism.

Sweeping legislation helped, but what made the difference was “the subsequent decision within the military leadership that racism was a fundamental problem affecting mission readiness, cohesion and national security — and it was vital that the culture change.”

“It can be done,” she said. “They just have to mean it.”

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

More Stories

Following the EPA’s Determination, Revisit the Battle Over Alaska’s Pebble Mine
The 2012 FRONTLINE documentary ‘Alaska Gold’ went inside the fight over the future of the Bristol Bay watershed.
February 3, 2023
From the Archives: How the Citizens United Decision Changed U.S. Political Campaigns
The 2012 documentary ‘Big Sky, Big Money’ is newly available to stream on FRONTLINE’s YouTube channel.
February 1, 2023
Where Are Russian Critics of Putin Featured in “Putin and the Presidents” Now?
What's happened to some of the Russian opposition politicians and journalists who've spoken openly about Vladimir Putin and the crackdown on protesters and critics?
January 31, 2023
‘Children of the Cold War’: Inside Biden and Putin’s Years-in-the-Making Clash Over Ukraine
Watch an excerpt from the new FRONTLINE documentary ‘Putin and the Presidents.’
January 24, 2023