Mission: We honor, support, and give voice to the brave men and women in uniform who have been raped or sexually assaulted by fellow service members. We seek to fix the military training, investigation and adjudication systems related to sexual violence, systems that often re-victimize survivors by blaming them while failing to prosecute perpetrators.
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Protect Our Defenders News Blog
Protect Our Defenders welcomes blog posts on our news page on timely topics related to military sexual assault. If you have an idea for a post, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
DOD IG RELEASES DAMNING REPORT REVEALING ARMY CID MISTREATMENT OF SEXUAL ASSAULT VICTIM, FAILURE TO PROPERLY INVESTIGATE SEXUAL ASSAULT ALLEGATIONS
The investigation into the Army’s Criminal Investigative Command (CID)’s mishandling of this case, initiated after a request by Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), contradicts the Army’s previous claims that the victims’ complaint was handled in accordance with regulations.
Washington, D.C. – Last week, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) Inspector General (IG) released a damning report of the Army’s failure to properly investigate an allegation of sexual assault. Additionally, the report found the Army investigator’s treatment of the victim was “dismissive and derisive.” In a blistering report, the IG concluded the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID) failed to follow its own rules in how to properly conduct an investigation into allegations of sexual assault, including using an improperly trained and inexperienced lead investigator with little or no oversight. Despite the IG’s forceful recommendation that the case be reopened and acknowledgement that the CID failed to investigate other crimes allegedly committed by the suspect, the head of the Army CID refused to reopen the investigation.
Col. Don Christensen (ret.), President of Protect Our Defenders, released the following statement:
“Due to the Army’s blatant failure to properly investigate this case, an accused rapist was allowed to leave the Army with an honorable discharge and no accountability. Sadly, scores of survivors have contacted Protect Our Defenders reporting they too had their allegations ignored and were treated poorly after reporting. It should be very troubling that it took the intervention of Senator Warner for the Army’s misconduct to become public. The mistreatment of survivors by the military continues to be a barrier to solving the sexual assault crisis.”
Protect Our Defenders President Col. Don Christensen responds to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Department of Defense (DoD) is failing to meet basic tenets to prevent sexual assault in the military. The report is the result of a 13-month investigation into the Pentagon’s 2014-16 prevention strategy.
Bill Minnix is an Air Force Veteran and survivor. In this powerful piece, Bill shares his struggles with PTSD and suicide in the wake of military sexual assault, and the need for reform.
Protect Our Defenders applauds Bill’s courage in sharing his deeply personal experience.
I have PTSD. We all know what it is, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I am one of millions who are affected by it each and every day. I am also one of hundreds of thousands of survivors of Military Sexual Trauma (MST), just one of the causes of PTSD. But along with my MST Community, we acknowledge this remains a dark secret within our military and most lawmakers refuse to acknowledge the MST epidemic continues to occur within the ranks of our military. For decades, those guilty of assault in higher commands are seldom prosecuted, and are allowed to continue on with their ranks and pensions, creating a situation that exposes other victims to their atrocities.
Growing up, the Vietnam War was on the nightly Huntley and Brinkley Report on our black and white television set. It was amazing to me that videos and footage could be shown in my living room several days after it was made. This was a new era in communication. As the war intensified, protesters where shown spitting on returning soldiers while calling them names. This made me feel very ashamed as a young teen in America, because these men and women would give their lives for our freedoms.
Here is a recap of top stories about stopping military sexual violence against service members and civilians.
Advisory Board Member’s Veterans Day Message: Stand Tall and Proud
Protect Our Defenders Advisory Board member, Terri Odom wrote a message to her fellow veteran survivors:
“As I take a crisp autumn stroll through our neighborhood, I count the green lights. Green lights on a home symbolize that either a veteran lives there or are a show of support for our veterans. I feel a sense of pride. Sadly, too often, survivors of military sexual trauma have a challenging time self-identifying as a veteran. Most of us did not choose to end our military career. Most of us did not have a pleasant separation from active duty status. We were victims of violent crimes and many survivors of military sexual trauma (MST) were not offered much, if any, support.”
As I take a crisp autumn stroll through our neighborhood, I count the green lights. Green lights on a home symbolize that either a veteran lives there or are a show of support for our veterans. I feel a sense of pride. Sadly, too often, survivors of military sexual trauma have a challenging time self-identifying as a veteran. Most of us did not choose to end our military career. Most of us did not have a pleasant separation from active duty status. We were victims of violent crimes and many survivors of military sexual trauma (MST) were not offered much, if any, support.
It took me over fifteen years to tell anyone I was a veteran. I was ashamed of being raped and felt horrible guilt that I had let my unit, my country, and my family down. I know I am not alone in feeling this way.
But today, I am a veteran, and a proud veteran. I am humbled by the strength and courage of my fellow MST veterans. I am proud of all of our veterans, knowing that only 1% of the American population have served in our armed forces. When people now thank me for my military service, I say that it was a high calling and privilege to serve our great nation.
Much has changed within our military since just last year. Female rangers! All service members now have the same equal civil liberty too marry whom they love! Veterans now can marry their spouse and have the same spousal benefits as all other veterans. Protect Our Defenders, as well as many great lawmakers and other nonprofits continue in the steadfast devoted “good fight” to bring justice within our military for both victims of military sexual assault as well as fair and due process to alleged perpetrators. So much progress has been made! But please, make no mistake about it: we have much work to do! So please, to all my fellow veterans, this 2015 Veterans Day, stand tall and proud! Only we know the pride and meaning of serving our county.
NEW GAO REPORT HIGHLIGHTS PENTAGON FAILURE TO ADDRESS SEXUAL ASSAULT EPIDEMIC IN THE MILITARY
Only 2 out of 18 planned prevention activities have been implemented, multiple complaints of lack of direction from sexual assault prevention offices, and reports of significant understaffing of sexual response coordinators and victim advocates at military facilities
Washington, D.C. – According to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Department of Defense (DoD) is failing to meet basic tenets to prevent sexual assault in the military. The report is the result of a 13-month investigation into the Pentagon’s 2014-16 prevention strategy.
According to the GAO:
Of the DoD’s 18 planned prevention activities, only two have been implemented.
Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) complain of both a lack of direction and understaffing
One installation only had one Sexual Assault Response Coordinator and one Victim Advocate for 1,200 servicemembers
DoD fails to follow guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to effectively prevent sexual violence
DoD has not identified intended outcomes or clear goals for their prevention programs, making it impossible to measure the impact of their efforts
Today, Protect Our Defenders President, Col. Don Christensen (ret.) and the former Chief Prosecutor of the United States Air Force, released the following statement:
“This GAO report highlights yet again a lack of accountability by the Pentagon for dealing with the ongoing military sexual assault crisis. It is especially disturbing that the military continues to ignore leading risk factors for sexual assault. According to the report, the Pentagon has not identified any military-specific risk factors, such as those relating to leadership or the military community – the two areas they have greatest control over.
The Huffington Post published an open letter to survivors by POD Pro Bono Network attorney Ryan Guilds:
A rape victim’s decision to come forward and participate in the criminal justice process is an incredibly personal one. Many victims are simply unable to feel safe or secure enough to report. But regardless of whether a victim moves forward with the criminal process, it is important to remember that no process defines a victim or their experience: A guilty verdict does not make the pain and anger of the assault completely go away. And an acquittal does not mean the victim was lying. Those who are able to come forward, however, are beacons of hope and an inspiration to those around them. Certainly that was the case with my client, who had countless opportunities to give up but never did because, as she told me, she believed it was important to do what she could to help other sexual assault survivors.
Stars and Stripes reports on a sexual assault case in the Air Force that lasted over three years and finally came to an end, but did not result in a conviction:
An Air Force sexual assault case that spanned two investigations, a lieutenant general’s forced retirement and a finding of unlawful command influence ended after more than three years Wednesday in the acquittal of Airman 1st Class Brandon T. Wright.
A military jury made up of officers and enlisted personnel — six men and one woman — found Wright not guilty at Joint Base Andrews, Md., after three hours of deliberation.
Ryan Guilds, a civilian lawyer and the woman’s independent counsel, [...] said that questions asked by the jury members during trial — a unique aspect of U.S. military law — showed a regressive military “mind-set” about sexual assault.
One officer on the panel asked the judge if the jury could see the sergeant’s performance evaluations and ribbons. Another wanted to know whether the sergeant had ever cheated on her fiancé, Guilds said. “They have absolutely no bearing in the case; they’re totally irrelevant,” he said. The judge did not allow either request.
Protect Our Defenders President Col. Don Christensen (ret.), and Former US Air Force Chief Prosecutor, is featured in this Air Force Times article:
Retired Col. Don Christensen, the Air Force’s former top prosecutor who joined the victims-advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, issued a statement on Wednesday critical of how the military justice system handled this case.
“This case is Exhibit A of the devastating consequences of our failed military justice system,” Christensen said in the statement. “Due to multiple errors committed by the command-driven justice system, both parties have had their lives on hold for more than three years awaiting a verdict.
“The survivor in this case endured a slew of avoidable hearings and appeals for over three years that repeatedly delayed her from having her day in court,” Christensen wrote. “An empowered independent military prosecutor based justice system would have ensured the administration of swift and efficient justice, something all of our military service members deserve.”
Christensen concluded that the military’s justice system was broken after securing a sexual-assault conviction against Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, an F-16 pilot and Aviano inspector general, only to see that conviction ovetrurned in February 2013 by then-Third Air Force commander Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin.
Please find below your recap of top stories about stopping military sexual violence against service members and civilians.
On September 30th, POD President Col. Don Christensen was invited to speak to commanders during a base-wide Army SHARP (Sexual Harassment/Assault Response Prevention) Summit at Fort Knox, KY. As a guest speaker, he briefed the leaders at Fort Knox on issues facing survivors of military sexual assault that POD witnesses through our Pro Bono Network, and he spoke about the responsibility commanders have to support survivors and prevent retaliation by both peers and superiors. The goal of the Summit was to familiarize Command Teams with services available to victims and raise awareness of the impact of sexual assault on unit readiness.
POD Advisory Board Member Discusses Suicide Prevention
*Trigger warning* Military assault survivors are at much higher risk for PTSD than other veterans–according to a VA study, nine times as much. Too often, these brave men and women are left to struggle alone.
In a powerful piece, Protect Our Defenders (POD) Advisory Board member Brian Lewis discusses his struggles with suicide in the wake of military sexual assault, the importance of support, and the need for reform. As Brian says, the United States loses 22 veterans daily to suicide, and it is time for the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs to do more. [The Good Men Project]
Last week, at the U.S. Army’s first SHARP summit, Protect Our Defenders Advisory Board Member Major General Robert Shadley (Ret.) explained how sexual assault is costing our military the best and brightest:
“The main thing I want to reemphasize is that SHARP is not a personnel issue; it is a readiness issue, a go-to-war issue. We need every man and woman in our formations to be able to come to work every day and do the best job they can. We can’t afford the tragic distractions of sexual misconduct, particularly as the military downsizes. Let’s take this to heart and do what we’re supposed to do as leaders in the United States Army.”
Gen Shadley is responsible for uncovering and investigating the military sexual abuse scandal known as The GAMe at the U.S. Army Ordnance Center and Schools at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, where he served as its Commanding General.
Protect Our Defenders President Col Don Christensen (ret.), and Former US Air Force Chief Prosecutor is featured in this Stars and Stripes article:
But officials with the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, which supported Gillibrand’s bill to strip commanders of their powers and give them to professional prosecutors, vouched for Kastenberg’s integrity and expressed concern about the implications of his ruling.
“This should be extremely troubling that an experienced, senior judge found that the Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Air Force engaged in unlawful command influence in part to stop the legislation to reform military justice,” said Don Christensen, POD president and the Air Force’s former top prosecutor.
“The whole case shows the inadequacy of the convening authority system, saddled with inexperienced commanders receiving faulty legal advice from people who are not independent, professional prosecutors,” he said.
Below is a recap of top stories about stopping military sexual violence against service members and civilians.
POD Profiled by Michigan Radio
Earlier this month Protect Our Defenders President, Col Don Christensen was interviewed by Michigan Radio’s “Stateside” about the crisis of sexual assault in the military and the work Protect Our Defenders is doing to end this epidemic. Col Christensen made it clear that Defense leadership has failed to send a clear message that sexual assaults will be handled seriously. Citing dismal conviction rates, he said, “The odds are astronomically in your favor that if you commit a sexual assault that you’ll never be held responsible.” [Michigan Radio]
On Wednesday, July 22, Major General Robert D. Shadley, U.S. Army (Ret.) testified at a public meeting of the Judicial Proceedings Panel on Sexual Assault in the Military. The hearing addressed issues related to Article 120, which criminalizes rape, sexual assault, and other sexual offenses in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), and will reviewed case studies of abuse of authority and coercive sexual offenses in the training environment. Gen Shadley’s remarks are below.
My name is Bob Shadley. Thank you very much for allowing me to add my thoughts on how the military judicial system can best help to rid our military of the cancer of sexual assaults and its precursor, sexual harassment.
While serving as the Commanding General, U.S. Army Ordnance Center and Schools at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, we uncovered a situation in which primarily drill sergeants were having a contest to see who could have sex with the most trainees (students). These cadre members either abused their positions of authority or took advantages of trainee weaknesses. I personally worked this issue 14 hours a day, 7 days a week for 10 months in 1996-97. It doesn’t get any worse than having leaders abuse those in their charge. I continued my involvement through my retirement in May, 2000, and beyond. For example, from 2004 to 2010, I served as a mentor for the Army’s Battle Command Training Program and worked with 35 colonel and general officer level commands. My advice on preventing and responding to sexual misconduct was included in officer and non-commissioned officer professional development presentations to several hundred leaders in these commands.
Annamarie was raped while serving in the US Air Force at the age of 19 and wrongfully discharged. Thirty-six years later, Annamarie confronted her past and the system that had previously failed her. Today, Annamarie is a motivational speaker, professional facilitator, and a member of the RAINN Speakers Bureau. In Annamarie’s own words, she is a “conqueror, champion, and advocate.”
Col Don Christensen (ret.), President, Protect Our Defenders and Former US Air Force Chief Prosecutor is interviewed on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside” about the epidemic of sexual assault in the military and his 23 years of service in the U.S. Air Force:
Christensen says Department of Defense leadership has failed to send a clear message that sexual assaults will be handled seriously.
Of the 20,000 sexual assaults in the military reported in 2014 by the Department of Defense, Christensen says only 200 or 300 were convicted.
“The odds are astronomically in your favor that if you conduct a sexual assault that you’ll never be held responsible.”
A message from Protect Our Defenders President Col Don Christensen (ret.):
Here is a recap of top stories about stopping sexual violence against service members and civilians.
Story on male survivors wins LA Press Clubaward
Journalist Steve Freiss received an LA Press Club award for his article, “The Military Has a Rape Problem—and It’s Not Just Women Who Suffer.” The report profiled Brian Lewis, a remarkable advocate and member of our Advisory Board, who testified in front of Congress about his assault and the retaliation he faced. We worked with Freiss extensively last year on the piece. [TakePart]
Senate Votes on Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA)
Last month, 50 Senators voted for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s bill that would have put prosecution decisions into the hands of legal experts — instead of commanders. This commensense approach to a fair justice system was unfortunately blocked by a filibuster threat, but we gained important ground. Two Senators who previously voted against the bill voted yes this time, and three new Senators voted yes — proving there’s reason for optimism. [USA Today]
A message from Protect Our Defenders Advisory Board Member Terri Odom:
LGBTQ service members have been silenced throughout history. Many servicemembers have been sexually assaulted because of who they were or kicked out after reporting their attacks.
I remember being barely 17 years old at the MEPS STATION in St. Louis, MO. My father and mother had signed me up for the Army after much begging and pleading on my part. We had to take a physical exam and a mental health exam to be considered fit for duty. One of the questions on the mental health exam asked, are you a homosexual? Our recruiters had already warned us, no matter what, say no! Mark that box no! Otherwise you would be disqualified from military service.
PROTECT OUR DEFENDERS CALLS ON PRESIDENT OBAMA TO SUPPORT SEXUAL ASSAULT VICTIMS AFTER VOTE ON MILITARY JUSTICE IMPROVEMENT ACT
Washington, D.C. – Today, Congress once again failed servicemembers who are survivors of rape and sexual assault in the military. Although a majority of Americans favor an independent and impartial justice system for our troops, the Senate voted against including the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2016. This common sense, bipartisan legislation would remove the decision to prosecute rape and sexual assault cases from a conflicted and often-biased chain of command, and put it into the hands of trained, independent military prosecutors.
Today, Former Air Force Chief Prosecutor and Protect Our Defenders President Col Don Christensen (ret.) released the following statement:
“Sadly, there are still many Senators willing to give the Pentagon a pass despite decades of empty promises and phantom progress. Those opposed to a fair justice system for our troops and their families are listening to the same generals that were against gay Americans serving their country or allowing women to serve equally. President Obama has told every servicemember who has experienced sexual assault that he’s ‘got their back.’ It’s time to prove it. The dysfunctional and unfair justice system is destroying the careers and often the lives of tens of thousands of great troops every year.”
By Don Christensen, Former Air Force Chief Prosecutor and Protect Our Defenders President Col Don Christensen (ret.)
Pentagon brass and their status quo supporters have engaged in a misinformation campaign claiming that New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act is unnecessary and will in fact be counterproductive. A recent editorial in the Daily Signal by Charles Stimson of the Heritage Foundation is the most recent example of this effort.
Stimson’s essay argues against Gillibrand’s proposed legislation on four levels. He first claims that there is no need for change due to improved numbers. Next he argues that the military justice system is unique and should not be changed. His third contention is that under the Military Justice Improvement Act, fewer offenders will be prosecuted, and finally he claims the reform will hurt commanders’ ability to protect victims. He is wrong in all four of his assertions.
Sexual assault still an epidemic in the military
The 2014 RAND survey estimates that there were 20,300 active-duty members in 2014 who were the victims of sexual assault; the majority of whom were assaulted at least twice, suggesting there were over 47,000 assaults against service members in 2014 alone. While the sexual assault rate is down from 2012, it is virtually unchanged from 2010. In other words, after four years, the military has shown no improvement. These numbers are even more startling when you consider it does not include the thousands of civilian employees, spouses, children, and members of local communities and foreigners abroad who were sexually assaulted by military members.
NEW REPORT SHOWS PENTAGON MISLEADS PUBLIC ON SEXUAL ASSAULT CRISIS
Washington, D.C. – Today, Protect Our Defenders (POD) released an analysis of recent Department of Defense (DoD) statistics in response to a fresh attempt by the Pentagon to downplay the impact of sexual assault in the military. Ahead of a Senate vote on Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s bill, the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA), which has been introduced as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016, the Pentagon circulated an infographic that cherry picks information and blatantly ignores troubling statistics that point to the widespread mistreatment of survivors that was exposed in a recent RAND survey commissioned by the Pentagon.
MJIA is a conservative, bipartisan bill that would remove the decision to prosecute rape and sexual assault cases from a conflicted and often biased chain of command and put it in the hands of independent military prosecutors. As the report conducted by RAND makes evident, victims still do not trust the system: in 2014, 1 in 3 victims believed that reporting would hurt their career, the process would be unfair, or that nothing would be done, and 1 in 4 feared retaliation from their chain of command or coworkers. Further, 60 percent of sexual harassment victims were harassed by someone in their chain of command.
Watch Senator Kirsten Gillibrand speak on the floor of the Senate urging her colleagues to support the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA). This common sense, bipartisan legislation would remove the decision to prosecute rape and sexual assault cases from a conflicted and often-biased chain of command, and put it into the hands of independent prosecutors.
Below is the full text of Senator Gillibrand’s remarks:
“Mr. President, I rise today to speak on my amendment, number 1578, the Military Justice Improvement Act, to ensure that the survivors of military sexual assault have access to an unbiased military judicial system.
“Last year, despite earning the support of 55 Senators – a coalition spanning the entire ideological spectrum, including both the Majority Leader and the Minority Leader – our bill to create an independent military justice system, free of the inherent bias and conflicts of interest within the chain of command, fell short of overcoming the 60-vote filibuster threshold.
Here’s the top news from the past month on our fight against sexual assault and harassment in the military.
New report on retaliation against victims
Two weeks ago, at a joint press conference in Washington, DC, Human Rights Watch and Protect Our Defenders announced the release of a report that found that service members who report sexual assault frequently experience retaliation that goes unpunished. [Reuters]
In response to the scathing report, I said, “Over and over, we hear from survivors that the retaliation was the worst part. They wish they hadn’t come forward.” [USA TODAY]
On May 18, at a press conference in Washington, D.C., Human Rights Watch and Protect Our Defenders released a report that found US military service members that report sexual assault, frequently experience retaliation that goes unpunished.
According to USA Today: “Punishment for those who retaliate, however, appears to be a rarity. Since 2012, the Pentagon inspector general, one of the military’s main offices to investigate the offenses, has closed two cases without substantiating the charges. It has three open cases, according to Bridget Serchak, a spokeswoman for the inspector general.”Read more here.
A message from Protect Our Defenders President Don Christensen:
President Obama told victims of military sexual assault that he has “got their back.”
Now it is time for him to prove it. With Protect Our Defenders’ support, Human Rights Watch produced and released a major report last week that found that victims who report their attacks are “12 times more likely to experience retaliation than to see their attacker convicted.” The DoD also found that 62% of women who report a sexual assault later experience retaliation.
In reality, retaliation includes relentless harassment and isolation. It’s suddenly receiving downgraded performance reports that end a promising career, or being misdiagnosed with a personality disorder and getting kicked out of the service without benefits.
That is why we are calling on President Obama to stop the military’s disgraceful attempts to smear victims.
Join us and tweet @POTUS to address Pentagon victim blaming:
Sample tweet: Victims of #MST are attacked for speaking out. @POTUS told survivors he’s “got their back.” It’s time for him to prove it. #EndVictimBlaming
It’s despicable that our men and women in uniform are assaulted, retaliated against and then accused of lying. This victim blaming has gone on for far too long.
Thank you for your support of this issue.
Col. Don Christensen (ret.), President, Protect Our Defenders
Former US Air Force Chief Prosecutor
Protect Our Defenders Foundation sends email to supporters who seeks to honor, support and give voice to the brave women and men in uniform who have been sexually assaulted while serving their country.
Protect Our Defenders President Col. Don Christensen is featured in this Stars and Stripes article:
But Christensen, who served in the Air Force for more than 20 years and handled dozens of sexual assault cases, called that a “pretty jaded view,” that someone would make a false accusation that could potentially send someone else to jail for the rest of their life “to avoid a letter of reprimand.”
“I’ve had a lot of cases, and I’ve never gotten the impression that the victim was enjoying the process,” he said.
Protect Our Defenders is mentioned in this Reuters article:
“The U.S. military’s progress in getting people to report sexual assaults isn’t going to continue as long as retaliation for making a report goes unpunished,” said Sara Darehshori, a counsel at Human Rights Watch who helped write the report.
The group urged Congress to reform the whistleblower act to give military personnel the same protection as civilians. It also recommended lawmakers bar the military from charging sexual assault victims with minor misconduct disclosed in reporting an attack, like underage drinking.
Protect Our Defenders President Col. Don Christensen is featured in this USA Today article
“Retaliation doesn’t encourage people to report,” said Don Christensen, president of Protect our Defenders, an advocacy group for military sexual assault survivors and former chief prosecutor for the Air Force. “Over and over we hear from survivors the retaliation was the worst part. They wish they hadn’t come forward.”
REMARKS FROM MIRANDA PETERSEN, PROTECT OUR DEFENDERS PROGRAM AND POLICY DIRECTOR AT HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH PRESS CONFERENCE
I’d like to start by recognizing the incredible work of Human Rights Watch in shining a light on this pervasive and devastating issue. We have been honored to work with them throughout this process. I’d also like to acknowledge the survivors who have demonstrated such strength in sharing their personal stories of retaliation and reprisal.
This report exposes the grave reality for the majority of survivors of rape and sexual assault in the military. Retaliation is the norm, and it is often severe. Superiors either look the other way or actively engage in retaliation. This report affirms what we see daily, through our Pro Bono Network: servicemembers who face retaliation have nowhere within the system to turn, and know that most likely no one will be held accountable. This leaves survivors with two practical options: either suffer in silence, or leave the military.
Last year, according to the Pentagon’s own numbers, 62 percent of victims who reported their assaults experienced retaliation—a rate unchanged over the two prior years.
You would think that these numbers would raise alarm and result in effective action from military leaders. Instead, the Pentagon seems intent on downplaying the severity of this problem and discrediting the victim. By labeling reports of retaliation as merely “perceptions,” the Pentagon has insinuated that victims are too sensitive to accurately interpret their own environment and that what is reported as retaliation is actually an exaggerated response to harmless behavior, such as not being invited to a party or being un-friended on Facebook. This approach is shameful and offensive, and minimizes the extreme harassment and abuse that so many survivors face.
Contrary to the Pentagon’s portrayal, this is not about hurt feelings. As the Human Rights Watch report documents, it is about survivors facing relentless harassment and isolation by peers and superiors that goes unchecked. It is about being assigned menial tasks by supervisors, like picking up garbage after reporting your assault. It is about suddenly receiving downgraded performance reports that end a promising career. And its about being charged with minor offenses such as underage drinking, revealed while reporting a rape, or being misdiagnosed with a personality disorder, as a device to force victims out of the service. This is what retaliation really looks like. It is life destroying.
In refusing to acknowledge the true nature of this problem and failing to hold bad actors accountable, the Pentagon is tacitly sanctioning the ongoing harassment and abuse of survivors, who have already suffered from the assault. Survivors frequently tell us that, while the actual assault was devastating, the betrayal of a corrupt system and retaliation by commanders and coworkers was far more traumatic.
The Pentagon must take the energy currently being spent opposing reforms and dismissing retaliation and begin taking steps to prevent assaults and protect and respect survivors. It is time for our military to implement a transparent and professional system of justice, and to hold those who make the military a hostile environment for victims of rape and sexual assault accountable. It’s time for the President to take action.
PROTECT OUR DEFENDERS AND HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH RELEASE REPORT ON RETALIATION OF MILITARY SEXUAL ASSAULT SURVIVORS
Washington, DC, May 18, 2015) – US military service members who report sexual assault frequently experience retaliation that goes unpunished, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The report is the result of an 18-month investigation by Human Rights Watch with the support of Protect Our Defenders, a human rights organization that supports and advocates for survivors of military sexual assault. Despite extensive reforms by the Defense Department to address sexual assault, the military has done little to hold retaliators to account or provide effective remedies for retaliation.
The 113-page report, “Embattled: Retaliation against Sexual Assault Survivors in the US Military,” finds that both male and female military personnel who report sexual assault are 12 times as likely to experience some form of retaliation as to see their attacker convicted of a sex offense. Retaliation against survivors ranges from threats, vandalism, and harassment to poor work assignments, loss of promotion opportunities, disciplinary action including discharge, and even criminal charges.
Denmark’s representative to the UN Human Rights Council, Carsten Staur, recommended “removing from the chain of command the decision about whether to prosecute cases of alleged assault.” His comments marked the “first time that a human rights body has called upon the U.S. to remove key decision-making authority from the chain of command in cases alleging sexual violence,” noted Liz Brundige, the Avon Global Center’s director, in a press release.
In an Italian court last month, Pvt. Darius McCullough was convicted of rape and sentenced to six years in prison.
But he’s also scheduled to rotate out of Italy on Saturday, so it’s possible he’ll never see the inside of a cell.
The disconnect comes from a painfully ponderous Italian justice system, a reluctance to jail U.S. military defendants, and the obscure workings of the status of forces agreement — the legal framework governing U.S. troops in Italy.
The US military has a problem with sexual violence. That’s the conclusion of the Universal Periodic Review Panel, a UN panel that aims to address the human rights records of the 193 UN member states. This is the second time that the panel has scrutinized the United States; the first was in 2010, when the list of concerns included detention in Guantanamo Bay, torture, the death penalty, and access to health care. Its latest report came out Monday morning, and there was a surprising addition to the predictable laundry list of US human rights violations.
In one of 12 final recommendations, the UN Council urged the US military “to prevent sexual violence in the military and ensure effective prosecution of offenders and redress for victims.” Other recommendations included stopping the militarization of police forces, closing Guantanamo Bay, ending the death penalty, and stopping NSA surveillance of citizens.
From an op-ed in the Missoulian supporting Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) Military Justice Improvement Act:
It is our belief that provisions New York’s Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced in 2013 and 2014, if enacted, would improve reporting, apprehension and competent prosecution of sexual offenders. The most important of these provisions is to shift the responsibility for prosecuting sexual offenses from individual commands to independent military courts. The command, which must maintain “good order and discipline,” would relinquish trial of sexual offenses to prosecutors trained in the law and who are accustomed to working with “evidence,” and systematically distance the command from prosecuting a colleague or valued member of the team.
There is a simple way for President Obama, in his capacity as commander in chief, to put an end to this impunity. To provide cadets and midshipmen with a meaningful way to challenge sex discrimination at their academies, he should issue an executive order modeled on Title IX’s legal protections. This order would, in effect, borrow Title IX’s prohibition against sex discrimination and create a pathway for Title IX-like complaints within the Defense Department. The president should also order the Pentagon’s inspector general to enforce this anti-discrimination rule at the academies.
Over the past decade, public outcry about sexual assault on college campuses and in the military has spurred legal reform. But one group at the intersection of these issues — women at the service academies — are still waiting for meaningful change. Last year, while announcing a new task force on gender-based violence on civilian campuses, Mr. Obama spoke to survivors directly: “I’ve got your back,” he said. Female cadets and midshipmen volunteer to serve our country — the president should have their backs, too.
Protect Our Defenders President Col. Don Christensen is featured in this Air Force Times article:
But retired Col. Don Christensen, a former Air Force chief prosecutor, thinks the swelling numbers of victims opting out is a cause for concern and shows victims may be losing confidence. Christensen, who is now president of Protect our Defenders, a group that advocates for survivors of sexual assault in the military, says the length of time it takes to resolve a sexual assault case, as well as the retaliation sexual assault victims sometimes suffer after they come forward, is discouraging some victims from continuing with their cases.
“As time drags on and they start to see how they’re being treated throughout the process, it becomes a disincentive for them to keep going forward,” Christensen said.
Grosso said the statistic could show that the newly established special victims’ counsels, who advocate on behalf of sexual assault victims, are increasingly helping those victims remove themselves from a process they no longer wish to be a part of.
For students enrolled in Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) or those considering enlisting in the armed forces upon graduation, the often disputed statistics on sexual violence in the military community force them to think about the extent of their service.
Laura Loyola, a sophomore at Drew University and a private in the Army National Guard, considered the prevalence of sexual violence in the U.S. military before deciding to commit to an ROTC program beginning in the upcoming fall semester.
“I can’t say that I didn’t think about it before enlisting,” said Loyola. “But, sexual assault can happen anywhere at any given moment, so it shouldn’t be something that holds you back from such a great experience.”
The Washington Post editorial board writes in support of fundamental reform:
A DEFENSE Department report this month found that fewer men and women in uniform said they were subjected to unwanted sexual attention last year and that there has been an increase in victims reporting sex-related crimes. The improvements are, at best, incremental and overshadowed by the unsettling statistic that 62 percent of women who filed sexual assault complaints last year said they faced retaliation for doing so. Reforms that have been put in place, while commendable, are clearly not sufficient to combat a problem so deep-rooted it has plagued the military for decades.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is right in saying enough is enough. We hope her renewed push to correct a major defect in how these crimes are investigated and prosecuted gains traction in Congress.
The Pentagon report used a workplace survey to estimate that 18,900 service members experienced unwanted sexual contact or assault last year, down from 26,000 in 2012 but in line with 19,300 reported in 2010. Seventy-six percent of servicewomen and nearly half of servicemen who were surveyed said sexual harassment is common or very common. Victims are so distrustful about getting fair treatment that only a fraction of those who are assaulted report the offense.
The academy said the brief hearing came amid changes in military procedures for evidence hearings. In January, military rules limited the scope of the hearings and allowed victims not to testify.
Those changes aside, lawyers are allowed to argue their case and call witnesses. Tuesday’s hearing was the first in recent years in which prosecutors declined to call witnesses.
Eugene Fidell, an expert in military law and lecturer at Yale, said similar instances have been rare.
“There are times when government, defense, and complainant(s)’ interests may all align to frustrate the public’s right to a public hearing,” Fidell wrote in an email.
Brian Purchia, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C., advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, which is pushing for enhanced protection of military victims of sexual assault, said the prosecution’s handling of the hearing raises some concern.
When the Pentagon released a new report last Friday detailing what one top official described as “meaningful progress” in combatting the military’s sexual assault epidemic, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was preparing to release a report of her own.
It might as well have been titled, “Not So Fast.”
In a press conference last week, the Pentagon announced a new military-wide survey had estimated the number of sexual assaults dropped from 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact in 2012 to 20,000 in 2014.
Gillibrand, D-NY, said in an interview with ABC News that the Pentagon is distorting the actual numbers of sexual assaults because it doesn’t measure the rates of service members who sexually assault spouses or civilians.
Just days after the Pentagon said its initiatives to tackle sexual assault in the military were paying off, a U.S. senator has accused the Defense Department of hiding the actual extent of such crimes. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said on Monday that a large number of cases continue to “remain in the shadows,” according to a report by the Associated Press.
“I don’t think the military is being honest about the problem,” Gillibrand reportedly said, after analyzing over 100 sexual assault cases. Spouses of service members and female civilians living near military facilities are most likely to be assaulted, she said, adding that these cases are not counted by the Pentagon while determining the prevalence of sexual assault in the military.
Moreover, of the 107 cases she reviewed, less than a quarter went to trial and just 11 resulted in conviction for sexual assault, Gillibrand told the AP. In several cases, the victims do not testify because they have been presumably intimidated, she reportedly said.
PROTECT OUR DEFENDERS RESPONDS TO NEW MILITARY SEXUAL ASSAULT REPORT THAT REVEALS HIGH RATES OF ASSAULTS AGAINST CIVILIANS AND MILITARY SPOUSES, AND MANY VICTIMS FAIL TO REPORT THEIR ATTACKS FOR FEAR OF RETALIATION
Washington, D.C. - Today, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) released a new report on military sexual assault at the four largest military bases in the country. A review of 107 case files found high rates of assault against civilian women and military spouses. These two survivor groups are not included in Pentagon surveys on sexual assault, which call into question the accuracy of the number of victims and extent of the ongoing epidemic.
Senator Gillibrand’s report highlights that victims still do not have enough confidence in the military justice system to report their attacks, and that nearly half of the survivors who did report eventually declined to move forward with their case.
Today, Former Air Force Chief Prosecutor and Protect Our Defenders President Col Don Christensen (ret.) released the following statement:
“This report is shocking. It exposes how many civilians are victims of the sexual assault crisis in our military and the depths the military will go to obstruct change. Clearly, the Pentagon has been hiding the ball from the American public and our elected officials. Military leaders continue to try and spin the scope of the problem with cherry picked information that only tells half of the story.
“This should be a wake up call for President Obama and anybody that thinks the military can solve this problem without creating an independent and impartial justice system. This ongoing, but solvable sexual assault crisis is costing our country hundreds of millions of dollars every year, while our mothers, daughters, sisters and friends have become victims in cities and towns from Washington, DC to California. How many of these rapists are now living in communities without any appropriate tracking? “
The full report is available online and an overview of the findings from Sen. Gillibrand’s office follows below.
In 53 percent of the cases, survivors were civilian women or military spouses.
The case files documented assault against two survivor groups not counted within the DOD’s sexual assault prevalence surveys: 32 percent of reports were filed by civilian women; 21 percent of reports were filed by civilian military spouses. Given that these survivor groups are overlooked in survey data, the total survivor population may be far larger than current estimates. The DOD’s sexual assault report for 2013 – the same year as these case files – estimated 20,000 cases of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact.
Majority of military spouses decline to pursue charges.
In nearly 73 percent of the cases involving servicemembers’ spouses, the spouse declined to pursue charges of sexual assault. Only one case involving a military spouse moved forward, and the servicemember was acquitted.
Nearly half of survivors who filed an unrestricted report declined to move forward.
Of the 104 cases where unrestricted reports were filed, 50 declined to move forward. Of the 50, many voluntarily submitted to the intrusive sexual assault evidence collect kit, only to suspend their cases later in the process. In the DOD’s most recent sexual assault report, 62 percent of women who reported a sexual assault perceived some form of retaliation – a rate unmoved from previous reports despite a commitment to change the climate.
Few cases move to trial, met with low conviction rates and less punishment.
Of the 107 cases, 24 proceed to trial. Of the cases that proceed to trial, only 11 resulted in a sexual assault conviction; six were convicted of a lesser charge that carried more lenient penalties like administrative discharge or a reduction in rank versus confinement and dishonorable discharge for sexual assault conviction. The remaining seven cases that did proceed to trial were acquitted.
When conviction happen, the accused likely confessed.
Of the 11 cases that did result in a sexual assault conviction, five included statements where the accused admitted to the crime.
When cases go cold, accuser likely to have denied it happened or claimed consent.
In 34 of the 107 case files, the accused told investigators that the assault did not happen or claimed that the sex was consensual. Of those 34 cases, command took action just 10 times, and none of these cases resulted in conviction. Significantly, 27 of the 34 cases where the accuser denied the action or claimed consent did not go to trial at all.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand: Snapshot Review of Sexual Assault Report Files at the Four Largest U.S. Military Bases in 2013
About Protect Our Defenders: Protect Our Defenders (POD) is a human rights organization. We seek to honor, support and give voice to the brave women and men in uniform who have been sexually assaulted while serving their country and re-victimized by the military adjudication system. POD provides pro bono casework and legal assistance to survivors. Learn more about Protect Our Defenders at www.protectourdefenders.com or on Facebook at http://facebook.com/ProtectOurDefenders or follow us on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ProtectRDfnders.
A survey published this week showed that a large percentage of women soldiers who reported unwanted sexual advances said they faced retaliation. USA Today reporter Tom Vanden Brook joins PBS’ Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.
It’s not against the law or military regulations to choose not to sit with someone in the dining hall or to unfriend them on Facebook, but in the traumatic aftermath of a sexual assault, a victim could interpret those moves as retaliation.
In these days when a tweet or Instagram photo can be wielded as weapons, the Pentagon is struggling to define retaliation and rein in bullying or other behavior that victims perceive as vengeful. At the same time, military leaders are expanding efforts to better train their lower- and midlevel commanders to detect and deal with retaliation, while also insuring that other, more innocent actions are not misinterpreted by assault victims.
On Friday, the Pentagon released a deeper analysis of the sexual assault survey data made public last December. That report acknowledges the difficulties in gathering data about retaliation, including problems with how some of the survey questions may have been misinterpreted and that incidents of retaliation may have been over counted.
PROTECT OUR DEFENDERS RESPONDS TO NEW REPORT EXPOSING RAMPANT RETALIATION AND SEXUAL HARASSMENT AGAINST SURVIVORS OF MILITARY SEXUAL ASSAULT
Washington, D.C. - Today, the Pentagon released its annual report on sexual assault in the military. The report provides disturbing details of this entrenched problem, as well as the widespread mistreatment of survivors. Both the results of a large anonymous survey conducted by RAND Corporation and the Department of Defense’s own numbers on official reports demonstrate a systemic failure in confronting rape in the military.
The report shows no significant improvement in assault and harassment rates from five years ago. In 2014 alone, 20,300 service members were sexually assaulted or raped, many by their fellow service members.
Disturbingly, 62% of service members who reported sexual assault experienced retaliation for coming forward. The majority of these victims experienced reprisal from their chain of command, with 35% facing adverse administrative action, 32% facing professional retaliation, and 11% receiving punishment for an infraction. Instead of taking responsibility for these numbers, the DoD has shamefully attempted to undermine victims, labeling reports of retaliation as simply “perceived”
In addition, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 14 men in the military were sexually harassed or experienced gender discrimination in 2014, and 60% of service members who were sexually harassed were harassed by someone in their chain of command.
Here’s your monthly digest of top news on our fight against sexual assault in the military.
New Whistleblower Legislation
Yesterday, Sens. Boxer, Wyden, and Markey introduced a bill to protect those who blow the whistle on military wrongdoings, including sexual abuse. “Servicemembers who bravely speak out about wrongdoing or misconduct — especially sexual assault survivors — deserve to know that they will be protected from retaliation,” Boxer said. [Defense One]
Rep. Speier also filed the bill as an amendment in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
NPR: When Civilians Accuse Troops of Rape, Military Courts Often Decide
Brittany Bentz reported that she was sexually assaulted at the age of 16 by a U.S. Air Force member. As civilians, she and her mother, Melinda, were shocked by their treatment in the military legal system, reports NPR.
As I explained in the story: “The court martial process is unlike any other criminal process in this country. It’s confusing enough for military members who go through the process. But for a civilian who has no ties to the military, it is like entering another world.” [National Public Radio]
We connected NPR’s Quil Lawrence with the Bentz family and found them a lawyer through our Pro Bono Network.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE MADELEINE ALBRIGHT JOINS
PROTECT OUR DEFENDERS ADVISORY BOARD
Washington, D.C. – Today, the human rights organization, Protect Our Defenders announced that former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has joined its Advisory Board. Dr. Albright served as Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, and is the first female to hold the position in U.S. history. In 2012, Dr. Albright received the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.
Dr. Albright joins an advisory board that includes General Wesley Clark (ret.), Kwame Anthony Appiah, a recipient of the 2012 National Humanities Medal and the 2007 Arthur Ross award of the Council on Foreign Relations, along with Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, and Lt General Claudia Kennedy (ret.), the first female to reach the rank of three-star general in the U.S. Army and many survivors of sexual assault in the military and other advocates working to create a professional and unbiased military justice system.
Today, Dr. Albright released the following statement:
“As someone who has the deepest respect and admiration for the men and women of the United States military, I am honored to join Protect Our Defenders’ advisory board. I strongly support their efforts to give voice to service members who have been sexually assaulted or harassed, and to ensure that our military justice system is impartial and effective. These crimes go against the core values of the armed forces. Eradicating sexual assault and harassment from our military will make it stronger and better, and I am proud to stand behind this cause.”
In an interview with MSNBC, former Chief Prosecutor of the Air Force and Protect Our Defenders President Col Don Christensen (ret.) discusses songbooks used by Air Force commanders that encourage sexual violence and the need for an independent and impartial military justice system. Col Christensen explained that these songbooks, one which was submitted as evidence in a lawsuit filed by victims of military sexual assault last week, is still being used by officers and commanders today.