Here’s a headline for you. From the Associated Press: “Military leaders wary of changes in sexual assault policy.”
You don’t say! After years and years of admitting under pressure that yes, they have a sexual assault problem, but insisting that no, the system does not need to change to respond to that problem, military leaders … still don’t want changes. Nobody could possibly have predicted this (total lack of) development!
Here’s what’s going on: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin created an independent review commission on military sexual assault, and that commission recommended moving decisions about sexual assault prosecutions out of the military chain of command and into the hands of a civilian-led Office of the Chief Special Victim Prosecutor—a similar policy to one advocates have pushed for for years, and as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has repeatedly introduced legislation to do—and some military leaders are pushing back by running to the AP to express their anonymous concern.
According to Austin, who is still deciding on what changes to recommend, “Clearly what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working.” Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has shifted from his previous opposition to such a policy, now saying “we’ve been at it for years, and we haven’t effectively moved the needle.”
So maybe it’s time to try something new.
Here’s another headline for you, from ABC News last August, which tells you something much more important than the concerns of military leaders who don’t think that cracking down on sexual assault is important enough to try something new after years of failure: “Military sexual assault victims say the system is broken.” Yeah. Yeah, it is.
After Kayla Kight, then a second lieutenant, was assaulted by a first lieutenant she met at training and gave a ride home when he was drunk, reported her assault, the Army’s response was such that “I didn’t get a good solid chance at a career because I was always starting over.” When Sasha Georgiades, a Navy petty officer, tried to report a sexual assault, “I told [a superior officer] who had done it and he says, ‘He’s a good sailor. Do you really want to ruin his career? I looked at my [him] and I was like, I guess not. I guess I don’t matter.”
Those women’s experiences are far from unique. According to the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, “sexual violence remains pervasive,” with a majority of sexual assaults committed by someone of higher rank than the victim, and “retaliation is the norm,” with “24% [of victims] separated under less than fully honorable conditions, compared to 15% of all service members.”
This is the system military leaders have fought to preserve. And now that the defense secretary is contemplating real change, the pushback is being leaked to the Associated Press. Those foot-draggers have powerful allies in the Senate, with Democratic Sen. Jack Reed, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, joining Republican Sen. James Inhofe to delay Gillibrand’s bill.
At this point, virtually no one in a public-facing position, whether in the military or the Senate, would admit to not caring about sexual violence or its survivors. But the people standing in the way of real structural change, change that does more than just tinker around the edges of years of failure, are telling us where protecting members of the military from sexual assault really ranks on their priority list. Doing things the way they’ve always been done by keeping prosecution decisions in the chain of command matters more to these people than the fact that the way things have always been done leads to high rates of assault. And that goes just as much for Jack Reed as it does for Jim Inhofe or any mid-level officer in a position to protect his buddy from consequences for sexual assault by intimidating or retaliating against the woman who tried to report that assault.