Ideas for the Task Force

Sexual assault in the military continues to be a huge problem. Arizona Senator Martha McSally recently revealed that, as a young fighter pilot, she was raped by a senior officer. She called for the creation of a Department of Defense sexual assault task force, and yesterday acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan agreed to form one.

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Female US military officer preparing gear before a training mission. (AP©2017)

I want to share parts of three earlier blog posts I wrote about sexual assault in the military. I believe my observations and proposals are still relevant. Probably no one on the DoD task force will ever read them, but hey, you never know.

From a March, 2010 post titled The Military’s Heterosexual Problem:

[…]

Since President Obama announced his intention to do away with DADT, retired generals have taken to cable news and editorial pages to declare that the presence of openly gay soldiers will hurt “unit cohesion.” One retired general even tried to blame the Dutch army’s failure to protect Muslims in Bosnia on the fact that gays are permitted to serve in the Dutch military.

A few nights ago I had an interesting conversation with a female USAF officer who recently commanded a communications unit operating in Iraq. She told me how, when her unit would finish working in the field and go onto American operating bases to spend the night, she’d be sent to the “female tent” to sleep. In many cases, she’d find herself either alone or one of only two or three other women in the tent. When that happened, she’d direct her team to pitch its own tent and then bed down with her men, rather than take the chance that male soldiers not under her command would try to rape her during the night. From what she described, male-on-female sexual assault is common in American military units in combat zones, and the military bends over backward to cover it up.

So what’s the real problem, retired generals? From what I’m seeing, it’s male-on-female sexual assault, and it’s endemic. How does that not affect unit cohesion? Why are you so wrapped around the axle about a few gay soldiers? Why didn’t you do something about male-on-female sexual assault when you were in uniform and it was happening under your command, and why aren’t you speaking out against it now? You’ll talk about gays and unit cohesion all day long, but you won’t talk about this.

Retired generals, thank you for your service. You can just shut the hell up now.

In June, 2013, I discussed concrete proposals for setting up an independent inspector general-style office to investigate sexual assaults.

I wanted to say something smart about sexual assault in the military; specifically about the idea of cutting the chain of command out of the sex crime investigation and prosecution loop by setting up an independent agency of some kind.

[…]

This is more or less what the tide of media and public opinion favors with regard to sexual assault in the military today. Set up an independent body to investigate and prosecute sexual crimes, with court-martial punishments that cannot be overruled by a commander who simply doesn’t believe one of his golden-haired boys could possibly have done such a thing (or who doesn’t really believe sexual assault is a crime to begin with).

[…]

Truth be told, right now I’m a little ashamed of my Air Force and the military in general. I always brag about how we led the way with racial integration. Oh, sure, President Truman forced it on us, and there was much institutional resistance at first, but when I was a military brat in the 1950s I was part of an integrated society, decades before the rest of the nation caught up. Maybe Truman didn’t change our hearts and minds, but he damn sure changed our behavior.

If we could achieve racial integration, one of the most profound things any organization in any society has ever done, why can’t we get a handle on integrating men and women? Sexual assault has always been a problem in the military, and it doesn’t look like anyone is facing up to it.

These four-star commanders, for all their power, do have a boss. They serve at the pleasure of the commander-in-chief. President Obama could do more than he has done so far to let those four-stars know that sexual assault in the military will not be tolerated.

If I were president, I know right where I’d start. Last November an Air Force lieutenant colonel stationed at Aviano Air Base in Italy was convicted by court-martial of sexual assault. He was sentenced to a year in military prison followed by termination of service and forfeiture of pay and retirement. In March of this year a three-star general in his chain of command overturned the conviction and punishment based on his opinion that the lieutenant colonel was a good father and husband who would never do such a thing. Above that three-star general was the four-star general commanding US Air Forces in Europe, who did nothing. I’d fire that four-star right now and make sure his replacement had immediate plans to terminate both the three-star and the lieutenant colonel. It would take only one or two actions like that to show military leaders that President Obama is as serious about sexual integration as President Truman was about racial integration.

Hey, there’d be another benefit, too: I’d have reason to brag about the Air Force again. I’d like that, I really would.

Finally, a post I wrote in March, 2014:

Yesterday a Senate bill to take commanders out of the decision loop in the prosecution of military sexual assault cases was filibustered and is now dead. A majority of 55 senators voted in favor of it, but it needed 60 votes to get around the by-now automatic Republican filibuster (sadly, some Democratic senators crossed the aisle to vote against it).

I was a military officer for 24 years and fully understand military arguments for keeping the authority to investigate and prosecute sexual assault with commanders. But I can no longer support it. Military leadership has promised, over and over again, to get tough on sexual assault. Military leadership has failed, over and over again, to keep that promise. Commanders routinely sabotage sexual assault investigations and prosecutions to protect favored male officers. The military has demonstrated that it is unwilling to protect victims of rape and assault, unwilling to punish perpetrators. Enough is enough; it’s time for a change.

To be fair, some things might be changing. Per the linked article, three months ago Congress passed legislation preventing commanders from overturning sexual assault verdicts and making retaliation for reporting assault a crime. I don’t know whether military commanders are now bound by these new rules; in fact I don’t know that the President has even signed the legislation. It isn’t law until he has, something the media often fails to point out.

What I do know is that if you’re a woman in the military and you are raped or sexually assaulted, you cannot realistically hope for justice. You can choose to report the assault, in which case you will be retaliated against in some fashion, and you may as well seek another career. Or you can choose not to report the assault (reportedly the decision made by the overwhelming majority of sexual assault victims in the ranks) and try to move on. That is the current reality.

The military should be leading the way in going after sexual assault, as it did with racial integration in the 1950s. I’m ashamed that military leaders have chosen to protect a broken status quo. As far as I’m concerned, at least when it comes to sexual assault, military leaders forfeited the moral authority to invoke the sacredness of the chain of command long ago.

© 2019, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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