Ruth Bass: Stamping out sex assault in the military



Here we are, 20-something years after the Navy hit the headlines with its Tailhook scandal, and nothing has changed.

Women in the military are still far more likely to get raped than civilian women, sex scandals continue to come to light at our military academies -- where the cream of the crop is supposedly being educated -- and military rape convictions are still being overturned just because.

Tailhook was the time when what happens in Las Vegas did not stay in Las Vegas. It was 1991, and some 100 Navy and Marine officers sexually assaulted at least 83 women and 7 men during a meeting of the Annual Tailhook Association.

It was one of the more spectacular occasions when the military was severely criticized for cultivating a culture hostile to women, and it might well have been successfully swabbed right off the main deck except for Assistant Secretary of the Navy Barbara Pope. Pope refused to accept the results of Rear Admiral Duvall Williams' investigation, partly because his group decided the whole thing was the fault of low-ranked enlisted men who didn't behave well and that no senior officials were responsible.

Perhaps her doubts were also influenced when he mentioned in front of her that he thought "a lot of female Navy pilots are go-go dancers, topless dancers or hookers." (Some of us believe raping them isn ‘t acceptable, either.)

In any case, the admiral resigned and the careers of various other senior officers were either damaged or ended. But now, 22 years have gone by, and women are still being raped in the military and are still, often, afraid to report it.

More than one in four women in the military, according to research done by the Pentagon, will be sexually assaulted during their careers. Some of the military's sex crimes involve assaults on men, but the Pentagon estimates that their guys have no greater risk of being a victim than men in civilian life.

A recent Pentagon report indicated that 26,000 personnel had been subjected to "unwanted sexual contact" in 2012. A few of the victims were men, but most were women.

The cases are bizarre. One young woman, stationed in Texas, tried to find out why she wasn't getting her paychecks. When she went to the command sergeant major's office, he said he'd release the money if she'd meet him in a hotel room. Later, on a mission, he raped her, she reported it and was told to be still.

One of the major problems for these assault victims is that the military court holds the power and operates on its code -- a code that protects its officers. Removing the process to an independent court -- and legislation has been filed in Congress to do that -- would certainly help.

The setup now is not unlike what colleges across the nation once did when date rape cases were reported. They handled it in house, sometimes sending it along to the student disciplinary committee as if it were not a major issue. These days, many colleges call in the cops and treat the felony as a felony. So independent prosecution would help.

But even if justice is served for raped military women, the hostile culture lives on, not only in acceptance of violent actions but also in condoning a sexist vocabulary that is insulting and often disgusting. When people like Pat Robertson blithely say things like "men will be men," the path to serious respect looks long.

It is perhaps an omen for a better future to read Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's speech to the Army's future leaders at the West Point graduation two days ago. He called sexual harassment and assaults in the military "a profound betrayal of sacred oaths and sacred trusts" and said "the scourge must be stamped out." Indeed.


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