The decades-long problem of sexual assault and harassment in the military got renewed attention last week with the release of a sweeping report by independent investigators who examined the environment at Fort Hood, one of the country’s largest military installations. The investigation was sparked by the murder of Vanessa Guillén, a 20-year-old Army specialist who disappeared in April after telling friends she had been sexually harassed. Her body was recovered in June, and the suspect in her death, a fellow soldier, killed himself as police attempted to arrest him.
The report uncovered “major flaws” in the handling of sex crimes, concluding there was “a ‘business as usual’ approach” that caused female soldiers to go into a survival mode, where they were “vulnerable and preyed upon, but fearful to report and be ostracized and re-victimized.” Fourteen Army officials were fired or suspended but, as one member of the investigating committee made clear in subsequent congressional testimony, the problems were not the result of one commander or administration but “really the result of years of benign neglect in the area of sexual harassment and sexual assault.” And it is likely that the issues are not unique to Fort Hood but extend to other Army installations.
Good for Mr. McCarthy for insisting on the unsparing review. But the chain of events — scandal followed by public outcry followed by investigation followed by promises of change — is reminiscent of the military’s sad history in dealing with sexual misconduct. Recall 1991, the year of the Tailhook scandal, in which Navy pilots drunkenly assaulted women at a Las Vegas convention; or 1996, when numerous reports surfaced of drill sergeants at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and other Army bases raping or harassing female trainees; or 2012, when investigation showed the abuse of women training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. Each time, there was a vow of change and zero tolerance.
Some reforms have been instituted, but while they are laudable, problems persist. Advocates for survivors as well as some military experts say the fundamental issue lies with granting commanding officers, who have an inherent conflict of interest, the authority to investigate and prosecute wrongdoers. Legislation that would provide for investigation by independent units with special training has been championed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), but despite bipartisan, majority support it has twice failed to overcome filibusters backed by fierce lobbying from the Pentagon.