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.