Justice for Victims of Sexual Assault in the Military

As a ten year Army Veteran I have witnessed many acts of honorable and faithful service in the defense of our great nation. The brave men and women of our armed forces have sacrificed more than could ever be described by the written word. Their sacrifices were in an attempt to provide a chance for many around the world to experience a sense of justice. We have asked our service members to endure multiple deployments away from their families, rigorous training schedules when they return, and to withstand outrageous injustices in name of good order and discipline. It is time we examine not only the policies of social injustice in our military, but advocate for their change.

Recently, our society has had a tendency to romanticize the idea of military service and the way our veterans are treated when they return home. It is not difficult to find the mainstream media running a tearful family reunification video, or veteran organizations advocating for our severely wounded warriors. However, what is disturbing to me not only as a veteran, but as a social work student, is the absence of veteran advocates for the survivors of sexual assault in the military, as they represent one of the most vulnerable in this demographic. I would suggest this exists simply because the thought of a service member being a registered sex offender speaks against the narrative of our treasured heroes that is so important to our national identity. It is important to note here that the military is a reflection of the society it defends. Essentially, the military is comprised of people from all walks of life that encompass both the good and bad in our communities. Any attempt to achieve social justice in our military must be met with the willingness to have some difficult conversations around this reality.

To illustrate the social injustice and isolation felt by many survivors of sexual assault in the military it is important to describe their expectations at the point of enlistment. At the time of initial enlistment it is clear to most service members that they would be subject to a new code of criminal law known as the, “ Uniform Code of Military Justice” (UCMJ). However, I feel it is safe to suggest that most still have an expectation of justice being served if they became a victim of a crime. Furthermore, I would suggest that there is not one military recruiter from any branch of service who makes it best practice to brief potential military recruits on the oppressive policy of Article 60, of the UCMJ.  Article 60, essentially, allows the Convening Authority (which is one person and in most cases is a man) to reduce, or throw out  sentences handed down to convicted sex-offenders by a court-martial without any justification, or accountability to anybody including the President of The United States. It is important to note that while I’m speaking specifically about sex-crimes, Article 60, applies to all sentences from any crime to include murder.  The best way to understand what this means is to start at the beginning of the process and attempt to draw a hypothetical parallel to our civilian system of justice.

After a sexual assault occurs the service member’s first step to receive justice is to report the assault to his or her chain of command. Many may be wondering what the chain of command is and why don’t survivors just call the military police? Well, reporting to the chain of command is equivalent to reporting a sexual assault to a civilian employer and the police are controlled by that employer. Imagine your civilian boss controls the police and what actions they are able to take, that is how it works in the military. The following example is a parallel of what the military system of justice would look like if it was used in a civilian scenario:  Imagine you are working in a retail store and you were sexually assaulted; you would be required to report it to your store manager and he or she would decide whether are not any action is to be taken. If you were to call the police they will respond and investigate; however, the investigation will be forwarded to your employer to decide whether to prosecute, or not at their sole discretion. So, in other words imagine enduring a difficult and often humiliating investigation, then having all of the information from that investigation forwarded to your employer and he or she decides what, if any action is taken. Also, there is a very real possibility that the perpetrator of the assault is working in the same department as you and you would be forced to work alongside them every day until your employer decided on what, if any action to take. Survivors of sexual assault in the military are consistently subjected to this form of injustice and hostile working environments.

So, let’s say that the commander has decided that there might be reason to send it up the chain of command to the Convening Authority for action. But before we precede any further let’s bring in the retail store analogy once again to help bring this into context. Your store manager decides that there might be enough evidence here to proceed, so he or she sends it off to the mayor of your home town to decide if it goes to trial. Once again I challenge the reader to think about how this would feel if it were you or a loved one oppressed by this policy. Once it is received by the Convening Authority, they make the decision if the case goes to trial or not. (The Convening Authority is under no obligation to send anything to trial and in the case of sexual assault often does not ). If the case proceeds to trial the following most likely occurs: The defendant receives a fair trial at tax payer expense with expert legal counsel and access to a robust applet process; the survivor is subjected to endure the humiliation of testifying and the excommunication of most of their fellow Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, or Marines leading to unbearable isolation and depression; then after all of that we end up with a verdict of guilty or not guilty. Many would think at this point that a guilty verdict would serve justice and that the worst part is over. I would suggest it could be just the beginning.

Once a verdict is handed down in a court-martial the findings are sent back to the convening authority for review. So, in the retail store example this is comparable to the Judge forwarding a sentence by a jury to the Mayor’s office for final review and approval. Art 60, of the UCMJ allows the convening authority who has no formal legal training to reduce, or throw out the sentence all together. I will use the retail store example one last time. Imagine the survivor of sexual assault in the retail store had his or her assailant’s conviction overturned by the mayor of the town in which they worked with no justification. I challenge anyone to find justice in that.

Much work needs to be done to see that the expectation of justice does not end at the signing of an enlistment contract. Currently, there is legislation sitting in the House Armed Service Subcommittee on Personal, and this is where I would suggest the advocacy comes in. Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D), of California, has introduced the, “Military Judicial Reform Act of 2013”( H.R. 1079), which will abolish Article 60 of the UCMJ. She has also introduced the” Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act” (H.R.1593), which will take the prosecution of sex-crimes out of the chain of command’s hands altogether. It is time we stand up for the service members that stood up for us. They stand on the front line of our democracy and I would suggest we need to stand on the front line and defend their basic human rights. This is essentially, a call to action for the entire social work profession in the name of social justice and I hope it is a call we can answer.


By: Michael Devilliers
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