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Sexual assault in military still pervasive despite efforts, lawmakers say

Elizabeth P. Van Winkle, executive director for the Office of Force Resiliency; Army Lt. Gen. Charles N. Pede, judge advocate general of the Army; Navy Vice Adm. John G. Hannink, judge advocate general of the Navy; Air Force Lt. Gen. Jeffrey A. Rockwell, judge advocate general of the Air Force; and Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Daniel J. Lecce, staff judge advocate to the commandant of the Marine Corps, testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s personnel subcommittee regarding their respective action plans on the prevention of and response to sexual assault, March 6, 2019. (Department of Defense/Released)

Despite incremental changes to the law and renewed focus, the military remains plagued with sexual misconduct allegations and improvements remain elusive, lawmakers, survivors and advocate groups said Wednesday.

During a dramatic Congressional hearing on Capitol Hill, senators and witnesses agreed that challenges with a long-standing culture, the Uniform of Military Justice and other concerns have bedeviled improvements.

The annual reported rate of sexual assault against servicewomen, for example, is unchanged from 4.4 percent in 2010 to 4.3 percent in 2016, said retired Air Force Col. Don M. Christensen, president of the Washington nonprofit Protect our Defenders.

“The scourge of sexual assault in the military has rightfully brought great scrutiny on the military justice system and the role of the chain of the command,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee subpanel hosting Wednesday’s hearing focused on sexual assault in the military.

“There has been no real improvement despite decades of promises from leadership and claims commanders are the solution. The commander-controlled system has failed to deliver accountability.”

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The hearing — which lasted more than more two hours — hosted sexual assault survivors, advocacy groups and military leaders, and hit frustrated and emotional beats as speakers struggled to tell personal stories and recount that despite heightened focus and effort, a long road remains.

New York Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand, the ranking Democrat for the Armed Services subpanel on personnel matters, said it’s clear the services have not done enough. Instead, a new fundamental approach is needed to prosecute these crimes, she said.

“I am incredibly disappointed that after years of fighting this problem, after so many incremental changes in the law, that we are still in the exact same place,” said New York Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand, the ranking Democrat for the Armed Services subpanel on personnel matters. “Sexual assault in the military is still pervasive. It’s still hurting our military readiness. It’s still causing thousands of our military service members to suffer.”

Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., a member of the Armed Services panel, admitted in her opening remarks that she was raped by a superior officer. The retired Air Force colonel and the first American woman pilot to fly in combat said, “this is personal for me,” McSally said.

“As a survivor of rape and betrayal I share the disgust of the failures of the military system and the many commanders who failed in their responsibility.”

McSally is a former House member who served on House Armed Services Committee last year and was appointed to her Senate seat by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey. She is temporarily filling the seat vacated by the late Republican Sen. John McCain and his successor, former Sen. Jon Kyl, who departed the upper chamber last year.

“We are survivors together,” she said. “And I’m honored to be here and use my voice and unique experience to work on this mission and stop military sexual assault for good.”

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Navy Lt. Comm. Erin Leigh Elliott recounted her 2014 sexual assault to the panel and the nightmares that followed in a court-martial to go after her perpetrator. Her superior at the time complained that he hoped the case wouldn’t come up at an important time for their ship.

“All I could think was, ‘Well, next time I get raped I’ll try to plan it better,’” Elliot told the panel.

Her boss told the 14-year Navy sailor that he preferred to have had her experience than cancer. In a further humiliation, the report of her assault was shared with her superior and her peers.

“I very seriously considered dropping the case as I did not want my boss reading about my vagina,” Elliot said. “I was humiliated from people of every rank.”

Angela Bapp, a former U.S. Military Academy West Point student, detailed her sexual assault that ultimately drove her from service.

“All I ever wanted is to serve my country, lead American soldiers, and fly the Apache helicopter. The loss of my military career and my inability to trust larger organizations such as our military, has deeply impacted who I am today,” Bapp said. “I struggle with accomplishing even minor daily tasks, and my quality of mental and emotional health has greatly deteriorated.”

Retired Air Force Col. Doug James, president and chairman of the nonprofit Save Our Heroes, based in San Antonio, said Congressional pressure has not reversed sexual assault trends and the UCMJ is not helping.

Retired Army Col. Ellen Haring, chief executive officer of nonprofit Service Women’s Action Network, said the concerns come down to a cultural problem. Haring said that sexual assault must become a felony under the UCMJ.

“Culture is the root of the sexual assault problem in the military,” she said. “Sexual assault is simply not seen as a serious crime. It’s until it is viewed as a serious crime and treated as a felony, it will continue to pervade our culture.”

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© 2019 the Stars and Stripes

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