"I loved everything about the Navy; now I hate it” said Petty Officer Rebecca Blumer in speaking of her ongoing personal battle with the U.S. military. On February 13, 2010 Blumer awoke to pain, bruising and swelling but no recollection of how this came to be. She soon came to the conclusion that she had been drugged and subsequently sexually assaulted, specifically she was raped. When reporting her attack to her superiors in the Navy, she received a response unlike anything she could have ever expected. Blumer was transferred from her position as an intelligence analyst to janitorial duties and essentially treated as though the rape she endured was her fault. "I was a problem, and they wanted to be rid of the problem," said Blumer. Eventually the Navy ruled that no rape had occurred at all and it was suggested that "Maybe it was just heavy petting, or you imagined it?" Sometime later Blumer was discharged from the U.S. Navy which led to a downward spiral of depression for which she still suffers from.
Sexual Assault in the Military
This sounds like some sort of fictional Hollywood drama and nothing any of us would like to believe is a reality; unfortunately Blumer’s story is one of many, simply substitute the names and ranks of thousands of other military members and you could write a multiple volume book on the accounts of sexual assault in the military/ In January of this year the Defense Secretary Panetta announced that women would soon be integrated into more positions in the military, but nobody seemed to think about the problems facing women in the military as it is, and how this could impact those issues, namely sexual assault. Women in the U.S. military are 180 times more likely to be sexually assaulted (from sexual harassment to rape) by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy combatants. Startling, is it not? Even more shocking is the fact that this number is based on only a fraction of true statistics because sexual assault often goes unreported in our military; not surprising if it is handled like Petty Officer Blumer describes.
2011 boasted a record 3,000 official cases of sexual assault within the military, however Defense Secretary Leon Panetta estimates the actual number to be around 19,000 perhaps more. Last year, an anonymous survey of approximately 1,100 women serving overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq was conducted and found that close to half of those surveyed had been sexually harassed, and almost one quarter of the 1,100 expressed that they had experienced sexual assault.
What is Being Done About Military Sexual Assault?
Well, often nothing at all. As I said above many women don’t even come forward, often because their attacker is the very person that perpetrated the abuse, which is exactly what happened during the huge sexual assault scandal at Lackland Airforce Base in Texas. I was shocked to learn that of the total number of assaults that are in fact reported, 92 percent of the NEVER make their way to military court. Multiple levels of failure contribute to this happening; from first responders to superior officers the problem is systemic. In 2012 two-thirds of all cases of sexual misconduct reported were summarily dismissed or deemed to be unfounded. Some offenders were given extra duties or had their pay docked, but very few were truly punished for their actions. What about those that did face court-martial proceedings? Well they too often got off easy as compared to those in the civilian realm. Many times they would admit guilt, accept punishment, and resign. Simple! As if it couldn’t get any worse…military judges have the authority and discretion to deem such allegations as consensual, thereby ending the case. Army Reserve Private First Class Sascha Garner knows firsthand what this looks like, because that is exactly what occurred in her case after waiting three hours to be heard while overseas in Bagram, Afghanistan. “I just started bawling my eyes out," said Garner. "How can they rule it consensual without even hearing my side of the story?"
After scores of reports, news stories and eventually the huge Air Force scandal, Defense Secretary Panetta decided it was time to be proactive about the problem of sexual harassment and assault in the military and created a Special Victims Unit within each branch of the service. In addition he has implemented new policies and procedures in order to assist victims who report assault. One final change Panetta made was to no longer allow unit commanders to made decisions as to whether to prosecute the claims, that job has been pushed up to high ranking colonels military wide. Many critics still see various flaws within this system and suggest that there be an independent military judiciary to rule on matters of sexual assault which would prevent perpetrators from escaping punishment, as many have done. Only time will tell whether or not Panetta will listen to such pleas and in fact institute an impartial judiciary to handle these claims.
The men and women that serve this country give so much to protect this nation day in and day out. It is terrible to think that many of them are forced to undergo additional stresses and pressure associated with sexual harassment, assault and rape. Let us hope that Panetta’s plan will provide a true avenue for justice to prevail.
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