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NATIONAL NEWS | fall 2004 Scandal Patrol Once again, the U.S. military scolds itself on rape, but will anything change?
by Lara Friedrich and Anne Decleene
Less than three weeks after Army Private First Class Susan Upchurch arrived at her first assignment, in Germany, she was raped by a fellow servicemember. When she reported the 2002 crime to a sergeant, she was told to “be a soldier” and pretend it never happened.
As a woman in the U.S. military, Upchurch is far from alone in experiencing the terror of sexual assault, and its traumatic aftermath. Over the past 15 years, scandalous episodes at the Navy’s Tailhook convention (where female sailors were groped by their cohorts) and the Aberdeen Training Grounds (where Army superiors raped trainees) drew widespread attention to the problem.
Most recently, a report from the Miles Foundation, which provides support to abuse victims in the military, revealed nearly 200 reported assaults on female servicemembers in the current theater of military operations (Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain and Kuwait ).
And that’s likely just the tip of the iceberg.
“If you are a woman [soldier] in Iraq, you have a very high probability that you may be raped,” says U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), “and not raped just once, but several times.”
Forced by public outcry to take action on sexual assault, the military has regularly done studies, held hearings and released reports — 18 reports in 15 years. But the question lingers: When will the military stop talking and start taking the steps necessary to reduce this epidemic of violence?
The latest cycle of military self-examination began in 2003 after female cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., revealed they had been reprimanded for reporting sexual assaults (see Ms., Summer 2003). That led to the formation of two task forces in 2004, one within the Department of Defense (DoD) and the other within the Army.
The DoD released chilling statistics, culled from 21 military locations and all branches of the service, showing that nearly 2,000 incidents of sexual assault were reported in 2002–03 (see chart below). Just over 90 percent of the victims were women; nearly 100 percent of the victimizers were men.
Separately, using a Freedom of Information Act request, a Washington Post reporter obtained unreleased statistics on sexual assaults collected between 1999 and 2003 by the Army Criminal Investigative Division. They showed that the number of reported rapes rose 25 percent over the period from 1999 to 2002 — a time when the number of Army personnel on active duty rose just over 9 percent.
From 2002 to 2003, the number of reported rapes rose another 5 percent, but the crime’s rate actually dropped because the number of active duty soldiers increased 20 percent.
Nonetheless, the Army has obviously made little progress in stemming the tide of sexual assault among its ranks. The recommendations from the task forces were almost predictable, among them that the military needs a victim advocates program, uniform guidelines for responding to charges, enhanced training, better oversight and stronger prevention strategies.
The DoD study acknowledged that investigations of assault charges are often hampered by delays and a lack of personnel.
“When a woman is raped, there’s nowhere to turn,” says Sanchez, a member of the Total Force Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.
She cited a shortage of rape-evidence kits — only 100 in Iraq and Kuwait — and of military doctors trained to deal with sexual assault. For example, one servicewoman testified that when she requested a rape kit, doctors had to read the directions on the back of the box before being able to use it.
In May, Sanchez proposed legislation to replace the military’s antiquated sexual- assault laws — enacted in the 1950s — with the type of civilian laws now in use at the federal level and in 38 states. Article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice doesn’t recognize date or acquaintance rape, and it still places undue emphasis on a woman’s behavior rather than on the perpetrator’s, according to Sanchez.
But faced with Pentagon opposition — the military claimed, despite 15 years of studies, that it didn’t have enough time to review the proposal — the House Armed Services Committee rejected Sanchez’s bill.
Instead, Congress has ordered the DoD to study potential code changes, and that report should be done by March 2005. Meanwhile, nearly 50 U.S. legislators have called on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to set a timeline for action on the Defense Department’s recommendations.
“DoD has a history of ignoring recommendations that were made in the numerous previous reports on sexual assault,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), one of the signatories to the Rumsfeld letter. “We want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Pfc. Upchurch is one of the rare female soldiers both brave enough to pursue a rape case and lucky enough to see her rapist convicted (he received a 15-year sentence) — only 76 of 670 accused Army offenders in 2002–03 even received a court-martial. She’s somewhat assuaged by the various hearings and reports, but wants more.
“I think that the [Army] task force has done what it can do,” she says. “Changes have to come from the leadership within the military.”
Sanchez hopes to change not just law but military attitudes.
“If we evaluated commanders on how they dealt with sexual violence, maybe they’d get trained and be much harder on it,” she says. “And there is going to need to be some change in how we help the victim, too. The system is not victim-friendly in the least.”
Related The Defense Department's 2004 Task Force Report on Care for Victims of Sexual Assault is available here (PDF file). The Army's 2004 Task Force Report on Sexual Assault Policies can be downloaded from this Army News Service website, under special reports.