This is all powerfully documented in the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary “The Invisible War.” The film exposes a military rife with misogyny and sexual harassment. It lays bare the stark reality sexual assault survivors face: Reporting these traumatic crimes often leads to even more trauma. Too often, victims’ claims are used against them, and they are ignored, interrogated or ridiculed. The result is a military system that makes it easier to rape — and easier to get away with it.
Right now, if an American in uniform is raped, her only option is to go to a commanding officer, who then decides what action — if any — to take. Imagine a teacher is raped by a coworker on her way to work. But instead of going to the police, she’s forced to report the crime to her principal, who then gets to decide whether the rapist is pursued or ever stands trial. In no other realm of society would we permit such a system.
This is the real scandal on which Congress should be focused right now. Fortunately, some on Capitol Hill are doing just that. Last week, a bipartisan group of senators, led by Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Barbara Boxer of California, introduced a bill
that would remove the investigation and prosecution of sex crimes from the military chain of command. Instead, it would put these decisions in the hands of military prosecutors, trained in sexual assault investigations, who cannot be influenced by senior officers in the chain of command.
At one of the most traumatic moments of her life, a rape survivor needs someone she can trust. She needs someone trained to help her, trained in the law and standing on her side. She does not need her boss.
So far, however, this administration and some members of Congress look more concerned with protecting the command structure than protecting victims of sexual assault.
A few weeks ago, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel emphatically said, “It is my strong belief — and I think others on Capitol Hill and within our institution — the ultimate authority has to remain within the command structure.” His press secretary later walked that back, and said all options are on the table.
President Obama says he’s committed to action — and he should be applauded for speaking up on the issue last year, in one of the first official statements ever by a president on this issue. At the Naval Academy’s commencement last Friday, he said of those who commit sexual assault, “They’ve got no place in the greatest military on earth.” The previous week, the president insisted, “I don’t just want more speeches or awareness programs or training, but ultimately folks look the other way.”