In the past several months, dozens of sexual assault allegations have emerged out of Lackland Air Force Base. That’s why it was particularly alarming to see a new Pentagon report out this week showing that alleged incidents of sexual assaults in the military have risen 35% over the past two years. And quite frankly, I was aghast to learn about how some in the military are addressing the problem. That’s why I’m sending this week’s letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
Dear Secretary Hagel,
It’s me, Melissa.
Congratulations again on your new position in the Obama administration. I know you have a lot on your plate between an ongoing war in Afghanistan and unrest in the Middle East. But I want to make sure that in the midst of complex international conflicts, you don’t forget about another crisis confronting our men and women in uniform every day–sexual assault in the military.
I am deeply troubled by the new report from your department this month finding an estimated 26,000 reported cases of sexual assault took place in the military last year–that’s more than 70 instances of sexual assault every day. But what makes those numbers even more troubling is the other news coming out about how sexual assault prevention is being handled.
This week the Air Force chief officer in charge of sexual assault prevention programs was himself arrested… for sexual battery. And that happened only shortly after he completed his sexual assault training course. I have to wonder, what was being taught in that course?
Because if it was anything like the brochure uncovered this week by Wired’s Spencer Ackerman, there is cause for great concern. The training brochure from Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, South Carolina includes tips on how to avoid sexual assault, like “don’t walk or jog alone,” “avoid doorways, bushes, and alleys,” and, in the case of an attack, “it may be advisable to submit than to resist.” Do you see the pattern here? What the brochure fails to mention? Mr. Secretary, the sexual assault training brochure fails to mention to not commit sexual assault in the first place. Instead, it shifts the entire responsibility of preventing assaults to the victims.
And then there’s the cases of Matthew Herrara and James Wilkerson, both military officials who were convicted of sexual assault. But because commanding officers have the power to reverse criminal convictions, both men had their charges dismissed - in one case, against the advice of the commanding officers’ legal team. And in both cases, no public explanation was provided about why convicted assaulters should be allowed to return to their posts.
Secretary Hagel, taken by themselves, each of these incidents is problematic. But together they spell out a grave institutional failing–that, despite the attention military sexual assault has received in the past few years, something isn’t working.
Mr. Secretary, you are to be commended for the steps you have already taken to address many of these issues. But sir, you gotta stay on it.
We heard about the changes the military would make and the promises of “zero tolerance” after the hallway horrors of the Tailhook convention in 1991, after the Aberdeen Proving Ground rape scandal in ‘96, and after the explosive reports of sexual assault at the Air Force Academy in ‘03. And yet, here we are again! This time it has to be different.
Our service members need real, institutional changes that allow victims to report crimes without fear of retaliation or humiliation. They need a cultural shift that puts blame on the assaulters—and sets out real, immutable consequences determined outside the chain of command.
And Secretary Hagel, we are counting on you to lead the change.