COLORADO SPRINGS — A recently graduated cadet remembers waiting for her accused rapist at the Air Force Academy to be brought to justice. A former sailor, now living in Denver, talks of being sexually harassed by shipmates and eventually forced to leave the Navy after she reported a subordinate's rape. A male sergeant, based at Fort Carson, speaks of seeing participants in a gang rape get away with it.
As the military tries again to deal with an epidemic of sexual assaults, these three service members have witnessed the problem firsthand. They know what happens when those who are victimized try to report assaults. They have seen commanders look away or worse.
The Senate is drafting its annual defense bill this month, including a provision that would strengthen how the Pentagon handles sexual assaults and harassment. Military leaders oppose a plan that would remove discretion from commanders to overrule juries in some of these cases, but a tougher proposal offered by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is gaining bipartisan support.
They, and those trying to help victims, all agree on one thing — these problems won't be fixed until the commanders of those committing the assaults no longer have the power to decide who is punished. In the military, for crimes from DUI to sexual assault, the commander, under the advice of a lawyer, decides whether a case will be handled administratively, through non-judicial punishment, such as a pay decrease or reduction in rank; or whether it will go to trial and what the charges will be.
"In the civilian world, the boss doesn't get to decide if you've been raped," says Georg-Andreas Pogany, a former Army sergeant who works in Colorado Springs to connect servicemembers with mental health resources.
Recent congressional hearings featured generals promising change and outlining programs created to fix the issues, but those in this military community say that's not enough to solve the problem. For the past 20 years, the military has confronted periodic sexual harassment and assault scandals, and reports show the problems have gotten worse. Ten years ago, 12% of the Air Force Academy's female graduating class said they had been sexually assaulted, and 70% said they had been sexually harassed. Last year, the Pentagon estimated that about 500 men and women were assaulted each week.