The Military’s Sexual Assault Problem is in the Culture of Protection More Than the Numbers

People (including, in some cases, Marine officers) who argue that the military doesn’t have a sexual assault problem because the proportion of reported assaults is comparable to that of society or university campuses are missing the point.

In society, if your boss protects you from rape allegations because you are good at your job (except for the part of your job that dictates respectful interaction with colleagues) or because they think you “adore your wife and nine-year old son,” they are likely to be annihilated proper by the civilian legal system. Cue Politico (emphasis added):

In 2010, the parents of a Texas high school student told an Air Force officer they were concerned a recruiter was sending their daughter inappropriate text messages, showing up at her work and spreading rumors.

The officer listened to the complaint, but it went no further — a common practice for popular soldiers, according to a senior Defense Department official with knowledge of the case.

A year later, the parent of another teenage girl found suggestive photos in her text messages from the same recruiter, Tech. Sgt. Jaime Rodriguez.

This time investigators dug in, eventually speaking with more than a dozen young women, some who met Rodriguez after the first complaint, who said his behavior ranged from unwanted advances to rape. Rodriguez began serving a 27-year military prison sentence in June on a slew of sex crimes, the worst of which was aggravated sexual assault.

The case is just one example of what the Pentagon’s own reports have concluded on sex crimes in the ranks: More than 90 percent of them are committed by predators who strike repeatedly, using positions of power, a weak reporting system and the culture of moving service members and officers from base to base every two or three years where they can prey on victims, over and over again.

In recent months, the Defense Department has even taken some proactive steps such as launching new training programs and reviewing thousands of personnel records. But a look at the history tells a different story: of a massive bureaucracy flouting Congress’s wishes at every turn — even as recently as today, when a database mandated in a 2008 law still sits unfinished, despite the Pentagon spending nearly $14 million to put it in place.

“They do all these reports all the time about how they’re taking care of it. And believe me, no one is more impressive than the United States military when they march in and say, ‘They’re taking care of it. We’re in charge. We’re going to make it happen.’ And then the next year it happens again. So it’s just a recurring problem,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) told POLITICO.

…in 2008 Congress told the Pentagon to specifically start tracking sexual assault cases, giving officials two years to get the job done. But five years later, it is still not complete.

“You’ve got perpetrators moving. You’ve got victims moving,” said the DoD official with knowledge of the Rodriguez case. “If you’ve got a perpetrator at a base, his victim pool is ever changing.”

But it’s not just the delayed databases that are the problem. There are many reasons for the Pentagon’s shortcomings.

Critics say the justice system allows assailants to routinely plea-bargain down to less serious crimes, which makes for misleading data.

Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, a victim advocacy group, expects the Pentagon’s new sexual assault database will very likely fall short by tracking only offenders convicted in military courts. There were only 238 people who fell into that category in fiscal 2012.

“So it is likely to be pretty small,” she said, adding that perpetrators often end up convicted of something less serious than rape or sexual assault, such as a collateral offense like fraternization.

In some cases, alleged military perpetrators walk free. Here, Parrish cited the case of Jeremy Goulet, a former Army helicopter pilot in Hawaii who was accused of raping two women but negotiated a plea deal to drop the charges and accept a less-than-honorable discharge. Earlier this year, Goulet allegedly shot and killed two Santa Cruz police detectives seeking to question him about a sexual assault report at the coffee shop where he’d worked. The 35-year-old, also killed in the incident, had a criminal history after serving in the Army that included spending two years in an Oregon prison stemming from a concealed-weapon conviction and a peeping Tom incident.

In Jaime Rodriguez’s case, he pleaded guilty in June to six charges, including dereliction of duty for attempting to have a sexual relationship with the same teenage girl whose parents first flagged him in 2010 to the Air Force. During the sentencing phase of his trial at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, both the girl and her mother testified but did not discuss their initial report because the prosecution wanted to keep the focus on Rodriguez’s actions — not the officer who heard their first warnings, according to the Pentagon source familiar with the case.

My experience is that when allegations are ignored, it is by lower-level supervisors protecting a favored airman,” said the Defense Department official.

Victim advocates also warn of poor communication with civilian authorities when service members are discharged instead of a court-martial, which happened 66 times last fiscal year, or when perpetrators are released from prison and leave the military.

“There are so many people who have been raped and assaulted that would have not been if the military had done just a halfway decent job of locking up the sexual predators that they have caught,” said Susan Burke, a Baltimore-based attorney who represents several current and former service members who have been sexually assaulted. “You cannot let known rapists walk around free without constantly creating more victims and re-traumatizing past victims.”

Nicole McCoy, a Marine Corps veteran, said the system she experienced after repeated incidents of sexual violence left her discouraged, especially after she said her commanders removed a protection order against one of her assailants. She also questioned the length of time it can take for an alleged perpetrator to first get questioned by an investigator. “They don’t see the bigger picture of the loopholes,” said McCoy, who has gathered more than 365,000 signatures on a change.org petition calling on the Defense Department to create its own version of a national sex offender registry.

There’s also the problem of low reporting. Estimates show only about 10 percent of the men and women who were sexually assaulted in 2012 filed an unrestricted report of their incident to the authorities, which is required before an investigation can even begin. Pentagon surveys and interviews with victims suggest the low reporting rate stems from low confidence in the military’s unique justice system. And that means there’s a glaring gap in the amount of information the Defense Department has for understanding who within its ranks is a potential threat.

“As long as you have less than 10 percent reporting, you have most serial predators going free,” said Kirby Dick, director of “The Invisible War,” an Oscar-nominated documentary about sexual assault in the military. “Prosecutions are important. But reporting is far more important.”

Greg Jacob, policy director of the Service Women’s Action Network and a former Marine infantry officer, said adding to what goes into a service member’s record will help in rooting out bad actors. From his experience, commanders will try to help their favorite troops by leaving information out of their files or by downgrading the official account about the severity of an incident.

Lots of times what’s in the book and what’s in your charge sheet doesn’t really reflect what you’ve done,” he said. “There’s this idea of you’re starting fresh with your new place. … [But] you run into this problem where folks move from base to base or show up in a new unit and if there’s nothing in their record book, then the gaining command doesn’t have any cognizance of what’s going on.”

“Many, many times victims who will not come forward in isolation will come forward when they learn that there’s another victim that’s willing to come forward that had the exact same brutality committed upon her. And we can’t do that in the military because they don’t track the information,” McCaskill said.

South Carolina Republican [Lindsey Graham] said [such a] provision could help the Pentagon address its “sexual predator problem.”

“You’re dead right about that. From my time in the military, they actually talked to each other. There’s a network of people out there, child abusers, and there are people out there who talk about where you go, what’s the best bar to go to. Believe it or not, it’s true,” he said.

The Pentagon last week announced it had reviewed the records of 35,000 personnel — suspending 60 sexual assault counselors, recruiters and drill instructors — after discovering they’d engaged in a variety of illicit behaviors.

Galbreath, a clinical psychologist trained in sexual disorders and a former Air Force investigator, said the Pentagon is also working with rape experts to understand what else besides a documented criminal history can be useful in finding sex offenders.

He acknowledged that sex offenders who have no prior record can still slip into the military. Many prey on victims they know while carrying an expectation, he said, that “sex is owed to them.”

And an aspect of the solution that isn’t mentioned enough:

But the discipline that comes with joining the military may be ideal to stomp this out.

“This is the kind of belief either we want to inform through education or training, that this is not what we want in the Department of Defense, or we want to lock them up,” he said.

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