This past November, while many Americans were reveling in the juicy details of the sex scandal surrounding then-CIA director David Petraeus, the U.S. Air Force released a damning report on an ongoing investigation into a sexual abuse scandal at Lackland Air Force Base. Although it received scant media attention, the report described a situation now familiar across the branches of the military—rampant sexual abuse, ignored accusations and perpetrators punished with slaps on their wrists.
So far, the Air Force has officially investigated twenty-five basic training instructors and identified forty-nine female victims. The true horror of the Lackland scandal is not the decade-long history of abuse and misconduct at the base but the far wider epidemic of sexual assault in the military. One out of every three women who leave the military report being a victim of some type of sexual abuse while serving their country. The Pentagon itself estimates that only 13.5 percent of sexual assaults are ever reported. With 3,152 incidents reported in 2010, the actual number of sexual assaults could be as high as 19,000—yet only 529 cases resulted in a trial.
In the case of Lackland, the Air Force’s report found that the scandal resulted in part from an environment in which sexual assault victims did not come forward due to their fears of professional retribution and their doubts that justice would be done. In a recent documentary on this subject, The Invisible War (available on Netflix and iTunes and at screenings across the country), victim after victim reported experiencing these same fears and other outrages, such as a requirement that a victim report his or her rape up the chain of command—even when that meant the only option was to report the crime to the perpetrator himself. Rape victims were often belittled or blamed by those they turned to for protection, and most saw their perpetrators walk with little or no punishment and permission to continue serving in the military. Not only is this a shocking miscarriage of justice for these women and men, but it forces other soldiers to serve next to abusers fortified by the knowledge that they can get away with their crime.
A poignant case highlighted by the film is that of Kori Cioca, who was beaten and raped by her supervisor while in the U.S. Coast Guard. Cioca’s injuries were so severe that she was still battling facial numbness six years after the attack. Meanwhile, her supervisor—who admitted hitting her but claimed the sex was consensual—was simply made to pay a small fine, was grounded on base for thirty days, and kept his job. In her class action lawsuit with sixteen other victims, Ms. Cioca and her co-litigants accused the Department of Defense of violating their civil rights by permitting a culture that fails to acknowledge assault and mishandles the cases that are brought to their attention. Her lawsuit ultimately failed, though a similar lawsuit was filed in September.
In his tone deaf response to the 2011 lawsuit, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell referred to sexual assault as a “wider societal problem” and noted that the military was reaching out to other large institutions such as universities to learn best practices for addressing the issue. Such a response suggests that the military remains in denial about the scope of its problem as an institution. Universities might have sexual assault issues to deal with, but it’s hard to imagine that they, as liberal bastions currently graduating more women than men, have the answers to give the conservative, male-dominated institution of the military. The military must figure out how to address this problem within a culture that prides itself on male strength and aggression. As put in a recent article in Stars and Stripes by female Marines, who were advised that they not wear shorts or smile too much at their male counterparts for fear of attracting assault, “… Sexism was just something that had been passed down through generations of Marines.”
Our soldiers enlist to protect and serve their country, but their country is letting them down. Americans must demand that their military leaders address a culture that allows soldiers to commit rape without fear of real punishment. Full and impartial investigations should be pursued upon accusations, and offenders should be punished with the full force of law.
Recent signs indicate that the military and the Department of Defense have begun to listen to advocates’ clarion calls for change. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reformed the chain of command reporting structure just two days after watching The Invisible War in April of this year. But there have been other scandals similar to Lackland that were also followed by investigations, hearings and unfulfilled vows to change. In the meantime, there are a number of groups currently working to advocate for victims, including Protect our Defenders and Stand With Servicewomen. If Americans cared as much about fighting the military’s sexual abuse epidemic as they did about the bizarre but arguably victimless Petraeus scandal, they would better protect their service members instead of the rapists in their ranks.