About one in four servicewomen report being sexually assaulted in the U.S. military during their careers. But all prosecutorial decisions fall in the hands of their commanders. If a survivor comes forward, they often face retaliation and unjust consequences, and less than one percent of cases result in a conviction.
The lack of accountability for perpetrators erodes confidence in the system, often giving survivors no choice but to leave the military. The sexual assault crisis jeopardizes the effectiveness and capabilities of the armed forces. But momentum for change is building. With the support of President Joe Biden, Congress members, military leaders, and activists alike are advocating for sexual assault cases to be handled by an independent body. However, a new announcement from the DoD could spark significant change.
From Meghann Myers
“Demographics of the U.S. Military,” CFR.org Editors
“‘A Poison in the System’: The Epidemic of Military Sexual Assault,” New York Times
“The Two Men Blocking Military Sexual Assault Reform,” New York Times
“Facts on United States Military Sexual Violence” [PDF], Protect Our Defenders
“Embattled: Retaliation against Sexual Assault Survivors in the US Military,” Human Rights Watch
“Six Men Tell Their Stories of Sexual Assault in the Military,” New York Times
“House Passes Defense Policy-Bill with Military-Justice Provision,” Wall Street Journal
Watch and Listen
“The Invisible War,” PBS
“Congress takes on sexual assault in the military,” Today, Explained
Military Forces: We are not just the ones that sit in the back anymore, we are actually leading troops and leading a team, and hopefully winning a battle out there.
13News Now: As we look at the people we need to attract to serve in our military, if we don’t expand the numbers of women, we are not going to have the people we need to do the jobs.
For almost 80 years, women have served this country in uniform, and today, over 200,000 serve in active duty forces. They are critical to the military’s success, and our national security depends on their contributions, sacrifices, and achievements.
But as they protect us, they are facing a threat that no soldier should ever have to face.
It is estimated that 1 in 4 servicewomen will experience a sexual assault during their career in the military. And the military’s separate justice system, overseen by commanders, has been criticized for its low rate of conviction.
The cost for each survivor is incalculable. At the same time, the trend is undermining our military’s readiness, and harming recruitment and retention.
Last week, the Pentagon announced that it will implement an eight-year plan to curb these crimes and to begin moving cases outside the oversight of commanders. But will it be enough?
I’m Gabrielle Sierra and this is Why It Matters. Today, the important role of women in the military, and the system that has failed them.
Gabrielle SIERRA: So what are some of the key facts that you think people should know when it comes to sexual assault and the military?
Don CHRISTENSEN: Well that it is at a crisis number and it's not getting any better.
This is Don Christensen, a retired Air Force colonel with 23 years of experience as a military lawyer, also known as a judge advocate, or a JAG. Currently, he is the President of Protect Our Defenders, a human rights non-profit seeking justice for survivors of military sexual assault and sexual harassment.
CHRISTENSEN: So the military is required by Congress to do a survey with active duty force every two years. To get an estimate of the prevalence rate of sexual assault and rape among the active duty men and women who serve. And that has been going on since 2006. It averages well over 20,000 sex assaults a year. That's just the active duty force, doesn't count the reserve and guard or civilians that are sexually assaulted by active duty members. Over six percent of the women are sexually assaulted or raped in a year, and we see very little accountability.
Meghann MYERS: Some people in the Military will say, " You know, one in four women, in uniform is sexually assaulted." And that is pretty on par with the rest of the United States, the incidents of women being sexually assaulted. But the big difference is that one in four American women are not sexually assaulted at work by their co-workers. And that's the big rub in the Military, is that these are your peers. And why is this so prevalent?
This is Meghann Myers, Pentagon Bureau Chief for Military Times, which provides news about service members at home and deployed around the world.
MYERS: You know, if one in, one in four female reporters were sexually assaulted by the reporters in the newsroom, right? Or if one in four female nurses were sexually assaulted by doctors in the hospital, that would be outrageous. You know, we would never accept that in those, you know, small small communities, that prevalence. These are, again, supposed to be the people that you would die for. And yet, you are, you know, victimizing them.
According to the Defense Department’s Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, a DoD survey indicated that in the fiscal year of 2018, 20,500 service members were sexually assaulted or raped, including 13,000 women and 7,500 men. Of these only 203 incidents resulted in conviction. That’s less than one percent.
These are wounds that cut deep. A 2020 DOD report found that sexual assault in the military is more likely to cause post-traumatic stress disorder than combat.
The statistics clearly show that both men and women are suffering sexual assault in the Military, but its a huge topic, so in this episode we are going to be primarily focusing on women.
SIERRA: So, obviously, the deepest consequence of this issue exists in the damaged lives of survivors, the pain that they have had to endure, but what are the other consequences? How does this problem hurt the military?
CHRISTENSEN: Well, let's start with this, in an all-volunteer force, the American Military cannot meet its requirements if women don't serve. They make up 15 to 16 percent of the military. If you take that 15 to 16 percent out, we do not have enough qualified men who are willing to serve to fill that role. Second thing is just the cost. You know, these women range from brand new trainees in basic training to colonels and even generals and admirals that are sexually assaulted. They choose overwhelmingly to leave. That is a huge cost that we have in that. It costs so much to train a pilot or train an infantry officer or a medical personnel, and to have them choose to leave or be forced out because of this is a massive talent pool drain for the services.
More than 1 in 4 survivors of sexual assault, harassment, or discrimination have taken steps to leave the military. The talent drain creates serious consequences for military capabilities, including for tasks that only women can perform.
MYERS: So the best example of women in a mission, in combat, doing something that men could not do, does involve this most recent operation in Afghanistan. Basically, the idea was, when counterinsurgency, which is having troops go into villages, into neighborhoods, win hearts and minds, you know, that was the way, that was how, what we called it. In order to integrate with those people and to learn about what they needed in the village, getting women on board, being able to talk to women about what they needed was crucial. And in these very conservative Muslim communities, women are not allowed to talk to men who are not in their families. So they could not talk to the male soldiers, who were coming to the village to speak to the village elders. And so special operations decided, "Okay, how about we train, you know, some teams of women who can go in and do that engagement?" And that is what they've been doing all along. A woman, Ashley White was her name, actually died in combat in Afghanistan in one of these teams when she was serving with Army Special Forces. So while women who serve just want to be seen as a service member like any other service member, there are examples like that where being a woman made somebody more useful in a situation, than the men who they were serving with.
SIERRA: So how does sexual assault impact units on the ground?
MYERS: So you could ask anybody in the military, you know, "What are the most important things for combat effectiveness?" And unit cohesion is chief among them. Which means everybody is watching out for each other, they're on the same page, they're willing to, you know, defend each other under any circumstance. And along those lines, there are also senior leaders in the military who will referred to sexual assault as fratricide, which is basically killing your brother or sister, attacking your brother or sister. And that is, you know, ideally the way that senior leaders want the issue to be looked at, because when women in a unit do not feel safe, you have destroyed the credibility, and the combat effectiveness of that unit because you are supposed to be watching out for each other, and obviously, if you're assaulting each other, it's not watching for each other.
To truly understand what’s going on here, it’s important to understand the long historical struggle for equality in the military, and the way women’s service roles have changed over time.
MYERS: When women were first formally able to serve in uniform dates back to World War II, there were a couple of voluntary organizations within the Army and the Navy, and those were largely medical, healthcare, and otherwise, you know, secretarial administrative roles. Women started to be more involved in direct action, you know, if you will, more into the eighties and the nineties women were when women were first allowed to serve on ships, when women were allowed to pilot aircraft. And then things were very status quo for a while. In the early nineties, there was a ban on women in direct combat roles. So that was, you know, no infantry, no artillery, no tanks, things like that. The feelings about that really started to change because of the global war on terror, because when we were in Iraq and Afghanistan, it really didn't matter if you were, you know, a female mechanic, a female military police officer, you know, a female supply sergeant, women were getting shot at and getting blown up just as often, you know, as men were, so women were in combat despite not being allowed to really serve in roles that were traditionally seen that way. In 2016, Ash Carter, who was the Secretary of Defense then, he decided, I'd like to get rid of the combat exemption for women, period, you know, we want women to be able to serve in all roles unless the services can come up with a good reason why not, and the services elected not to make any excuses. And so all of those roles did end up opening around 2017, 2018 is when you started seeing more and more women assigned, particularly in Army and Marine Corps infantry, which were kind of the last bastions of male-only environments in the military. And then more and more into special operations roles as well. You know, there are now women who serve in army special forces. There are women in air force special operations, and that gap is closing more than ever.
Today, women in the military are just as essential as their male counterparts. But they have only had equal opportunities for a handful of years. As a result, many vestiges of the military’s traditionally all-male culture remain.
MYERS: I think a lot of it has to do with the way that women were integrated into the military, which was incredibly traumatic and problematic for a long time. They were degraded, made to feel other, less than the entire time. And that dehumanization, and that degradation of women and their contributions really made it a lot easier for their peers to harass and assault them. And that sort of, othering of women in the military still continues, up and to the point where the Marine Corps is just now integrating boot camp. The Marine Corps has never let men and women train together from the very first days in the service. And that created a culture where there were Marines, and then there were female Marines. And a lot of that came from the fact that, you know, "She doesn't do the same training as I did, she's less than me. We have different fitness standards. And that leads up to this dehumanization that then makes people feel empowered to victimize women that they serve with. So that's the other part that’s gonna take a much longer time for them to tackle, versus you know, changing the way that they prosecute these things.
That said, the way these crimes are prosecuted is an important part of the picture. Crimes committed in the military are tried in a completely separate justice system. This system is overseen by commanders, rather than civilian judges, and it operates according to very different rules.
SIERRA: So, other than what I’ve learned in movies like A Few Good Men, I don’t know much about the military justice system. Do you think you walk me through how a sexual assault case might be handled?
MYERS: So the first step following an assault is a report, and you can report that to a commander, to anyone in leadership, really. And the idea is that it will get routed to a criminal investigation unit. If you decide that you would like it to be prosecuted. There are two kinds of reports in the military: restricted reports, which are basically for data collection purposes, but don't result in an investigation, and then unrestricted ones that turn into an investigation. And so you will see one of the services that are local investigation units will come by do a criminal investigation, that's you, you know, you might be familiar with in the civilian world, but the big difference in the military is rather than that case being referred to a prosecutor in a district attorney's office, the commander of that unit gets to decide whether charges are pressed. And then the commander of that unit gets to decide whether it goes to trial. So it is not at this point, an independently adjudicated system, a judge, and a jury do preside over the trial. But again, the commander has the authority to overturn the verdict or the sentencing in that trial, if he or she feels that it was not warranted.
That judge and jury, by the way, are also military personnel.
MYERS: So that's everything from mishandling weapons, from, you know, vehicle accidents, DUIs, anything that happens, the commanders administer justice in the military, as it is now.
SIERRA: What are the obstacles a survivor may face when thinking about coming forward?
CHRISTENSEN: Unlike the civilian system, where if someone is sexually assaulted and they choose to report, they're gonna go to law enforcement. In the military, it's controlled by the commander, the person who's the boss of the suspect and often the boss of the victim. They're gonna have a divided loyalty in that case -
CHRISTENSEN: Which one do they choose? And everything is revolved there. The investigation occurs there, the prosecution, if it happens, it occurs there. A victim's commander reviews all the evidence. That victim's private life is being ripped open. If there has been a rape kit, the commander gets to see the results of that. If there were photographs taken of the rape kit, commander gets to see that. If intimate images were taken, which often happens, the commander gets to see that. That's going to disincentivize a lot of people, knowing that day in and day out, this guy that you work for has been able to look at the most horrible part of your life, and you're gonna be thinking about that.
SIERRA: Right. I mean, you're reliving something that's just so horrible over again, but then also very publicly with, essentially, your colleagues.
CHRISTENSEN: So the DOD also has to look at retaliation thanks to Congress, and we know from those same surveys that of the women and men who come forward, about 64 percent of them say they were retaliated against after they -
CHRISTENSEN: Came forward. Yeah, it's huge numbers. The DODIG released a report in 2016 showing that one out of three women who reported the sexual assault, were forced out of the military within a year of reporting. Over 20 percent of them had a less than fully honorable discharge. Retaliation looks like career consequences, where you're not allowed to progress or you don't get promoted. But retaliation is also social retaliation and that can be incredibly painful, because in the military environment, your entire life revolves around that installation. You eat there, you sleep there, you work there, you shop there, you go to the movies there. Everything is right there.
When we learn about the justice system in civics class, a lot of time is spent focusing on impartiality. That’s a core tenant of how justice is supposed to be carried out in the U.S. But critics of the military system point out that commanders often face a conflict of interest when deciding cases.
MYERS: So, the commander is accountable for the good order and discipline of the unit, that also means that a commander can face their own repercussions for not having control over the good order and discipline of a unit. And so, there's also a very high temptation to under report, push things aside, couch incidents, so that the commander doesn't look bad. And that becomes a real conflict of interest, obviously, when you have a rape in your formation, and you have to decide whether there's gonna be a trial or not because your name is gonna be on that.
SIERRA: Do victims have the option of just opting out of all of this, and going to the civilian police?
MYERS: It depends. If it happens on a military base, no. On a military base, the military is responsible for justice. If it's something that happens, you know, at an off base residence, or an off base business, something like that especially if it's service member on service member, generally the law enforcement in military communities will defer to commanders on the base, for adjudicating something like that.
The military justice system comes from a very old tradition, one that was aimed at maintaining order within the ranks and the structure of command. Advocates of this system say that taking cases out of the chain of command would undermine the authority of commanders and therefore compromise discipline and battle effectiveness. But there are some examples from other countries that seem to contradict that prediction.
SIERRA: Is this unique to the United States? I mean, do other major countries have similar legal rules for their military?
CHRISTENSEN: Most of our allies have moved to a case where the military commander does not make prosecution decisions, the default is to go to the civilian prosecutors.
Australia, Germany, Canada, Great Britain and Israel prosecute major crimes outside the chain of command by professional military prosecutors. And by most reasonable measures, their militaries have remained effective.
Israel has come down particularly hard on this issue, with IDF Chief of Staff, Aviv Kohavi, saying “Any attack on sexual grounds, in speech or in deed, is an attack on human dignity and constitutes a severe breach.”
As we look for answers at home or abroad, and comb through so many complexities, we risk forgetting the living, breathing human beings who have suffered as a result of this problem. So we decided to speak to a survivor to hear her story. She served with the National Guard, which essentially follows the same justice protocols as other active duty branches.
Heather SEXTON: My name is Heather Sexton and I'm currently a biologist at a pharmaceutical testing company, but I used to be a Captain in the Missouri Army National Guard.
SIERRA: Can tell us a little bit about your assault.
SEXTON: Yeah. We were going to a huge event in Utah, and I was part of the Advon team, which basically means there's a team that gets sent ahead of time to set everything up so that when the exercise starts, it's all ready to go and everyone else just has to show up and start training. So it was a small group of us, probably about eight people. And I was the highest-ranking, so I was in charge of everyone. And I was also the only female there. There was this really long, dark sidewalk leading down to the female barracks, and just because there's supposed to be, like, 30 different states there, and it was just this huge conglomeration of people, I wasn't really comfortable walking back to the barracks after we were done setting up late at night. So I started having some of the members of my team walk me back to my barracks, which is honestly a little embarrassing when you're the highest-ranking one there, but I felt like it was really necessary at that point.
Heather told us that on one of these evenings at the end of the walk she was sexually assaulted by a team member.
SEXTON: The next morning I went and reported everything to the Chaplain and the victim advocate there, but that was in Utah, so it doesn't really correlate to our state since I was in the National Guard. So basically they got me out of there, but I kind of had to redo everything. All of the reporting once I got back to Missouri.
SIERRA: What was the atmosphere like when you went to report the assault that second time?
SEXTON: It was honestly awful. Immediately everybody knew. But the worst part was that they had immediately transferred him to a new unit and brought him home from Utah, and the new unit they transferred him to was the unit I had to go to report it. So I was standing there two days after, and he walked in the office.
SIERRA: Oh my gosh. What was the process for handling your case? You know, were you optimistic about them doing the right thing as it went along?
SEXTON: No, not really. I had heard a lot of horror stories. That's why I wasn't sure initially if I wanted to report and go through it or not, but then in the end I know I would have, because that would have haunted me forever. Even now knowing the outcome, I don't regret reporting it.
SIERRA: So, how did the assault change your experience at work? Because, you know, you waited for the system to do its work. How long did you wait, and what was it, you know, like for you continuing to report and continuing to work through that?
SEXTON: It was almost two years.
SEXTON: And it was terrible. That was a small unit, it was embarrassing. He was friends with everybody. It was tough going and showing up knowing that everyone knew and knowing everyone didn't have my back.
SIERRA: Yeah. So, you know, what was the ultimate outcome?
SEXTON: They validated my whole story, they said that everything happened, but ultimately my claim was unsubstantiated. I honestly was so confused. I thought I had mentally prepared myself for everything, I thought I already knew how it works, but I never thought they would tell me it happened, but it's okay that it happened. So they just treated it like a regular business meeting at drills, said, "Can you come in the office really quick?" And just read it off to me, like it was, I don't know, I couldn't believe it. It had been destroying my life for two years and they just acted like it was a regular meeting. And then on top of that, to really rub salt in the wound, they gave me a letter from the Brigadier General, the second-highest-ranking officer in the state of Missouri, reprimanding me, because I should have been more professional that night.
SIERRA: So how long did you stay after that?
SEXTON: I got out as soon as I could, but that wasn't very quickly. So I got the verdict in January, I believe, and I was out by April.
SIERRA: I am just so incredibly sorry.
SEXTON: Thank you, I really appreciate you guys shining light on it too. It's obviously really important to me.
We reached out to the Missouri Army National Guard and they replied that they were prohibited from commenting on personnel matters or investigations.
Heather’s story is just one of many thousands. And, according to the statistics, in recent years less than 1% of survivors have seen their case carried through to conviction.
SIERRA: So what sort of sentencing do we see in the Military system? You know, what are the punishments? How often are they handed out?
MYERS: It can be all over the place. You know, anywhere from, a discharge, something other than an honorable discharge. And you know, docking pay, or, reducing someone in rank. You know, there are people who are in prison for rape in the Military. It's very rare that that happens, only because, much like in the civilian world, out of thousands of reports that they get every year, a small handful of those will go to trial and an even smaller handful will result in a conviction, and a sentence.
SIERRA: So what has the military done to address this over the years?
CHRISTENSEN: One of the things they have done is, basically try to train their way out of this crisis. That hasn't been effective. The training, I think, falls on, deaf ears. It has resulted, I think, a lot of backlash. There's, like, a term, being SHARPed. SHARP stands for Sexual Harassment Assault Response Program. That's an Army program. And so they'll use that as a derogatory term to a soldier's complaint. "Oh, she's trying to SHARP somebody.” Like, that's made up.
MYERS: The feeling here among senior leadership is basically that the awareness and the infrastructure that the services have built around trying to, first trying to respond to it, but also prevent it, that has been going on for nearly a decade now. And there have been no measurable drops in the incidents of sexual assaults and no measurable increases in the prosecutions or convictions of sexual assaults. And so the feeling is, we tried all these other things, a lot of very smart, experienced people think that changing the way we prosecute them may make a difference. And so they are willing to try that to see if the numbers bear out.
For decades, efforts focused on prevention, victim support, and bystander intervention. The educational content was disseminated through videos, posters, and classes. But experts say this strategy missed the mark. And as time went on, repeated attempts to fix this problem failed.
But things may be reaching a turning point. Last week, the Department of Defense announced a plan that aims to comprehensively address this issue. Chief among its proposals is a change that would move prosecutorial decisions outside the chain of command in cases of sexual assault.
The news broke after our guest interviews, but we reached back out to them for comment. Both agreed that the plan contains many good ideas. However, they said that its 8 year implementation timeline could be reversed by a new Administration or a new Secretary of Defense. And despite this major push, the DoD still cannot remove authority from the chain of command without congress.
The Department of Defense is not the only potential source of reform. Before the announcement, there had already been two proposals in Congress to address the problem. In the Senate there is the “Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act.” Helmed by Kirsten Gillibrand, it has garnered bipartisan support and is expected to pass.
Kristien GILLIBRAND, PBS News: There’s few bills in Congress that have the support of Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz, both Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell, but this bill does.
And in the House, there is a similar bill, the “Vanessa Guillen Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act.”
There are still some questions about how the Congressional legislation and the DoD’s plan will interact. But, if passed, they would be some of the most significant military reforms of our time.
MYERS: The Pentagon announced earlier this year that they will start taking steps toward removing sexual assaults and what they consider related crimes, so like I said earlier, sexual harassment, domestic violence, child abuse, out of the chain of command. But kind of in a, in a parallel lane, you have, legislation from New York Senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, that has a lot of support in the Senate, and likewise, a decent amount of support in the House of Representatives that would take all major crimes out of the chain of command, away from a commander's authority. It's a little fuzzy as to where the definition is, but that could be all felonies. So you know, that could be assaults, and DUIs, and things that are crimes, but are not inherently related to military service. It is possible that those things will all be handled independently, still within the Military, but not at a commander's discretion. So a commander's discretion would go more toward, you know, accidents on a shooting range or, you know, vehicle accidents, mishandling, and that sort of thing.
SIERRA: Where does the legislation currently stand?
MYERS: It was part of the, the most recent National Defense Authorization Act, which is the law that Congress passes every year that basically tells the Military how it's going to spend its money. But that is all kind of in a holding pattern right now because it's such an immense bill. And so, the House and the Senate, like they always do, have gone back and forth about which version they're most interested in. So it will be a little while longer, until we know whether that ends up in that law. And also, you know, there's, there's negotiations going on about whether Congress even needs to get involved now because the Pentagon said, "Okay we're gonna do sexual assaults, you know. We're gonna fix this, this was the most important thing." And so maybe they will back off on, on taking all other felonies out of the chain.
SIERRA: So what's your take on these different proposals?
CHRISTENSEN: Well, I firmly believe that Senator Gillibrand and Representative Speier have the right view on this, that we should be moving all felonies over. Senator Gillibrand, Senator Ernst, have over 60 cosponsors in the Senate, they have the majority of the Senate Armed Services Committee, her legislation was put into the markup of the National Defense Authorization Act. So it looks like it's going to come out of the Senate version. So I think as long as they're part of the NDAA, and they're virtually identical, which they are, it's a really good chance they'll pass.
The future of the legislation seems bright. And that’s a good thing, because if a solution is not found, the problem could hinder recruitment efforts for years to come.
SIERRA: So what's lost, if the U.S. military can't retain and promote women?
MYERS: The Military will become, as some people already argue it is, out of touch with American people, with American civilization, with what goes on in the outside world, and that goal that they have to reflect the people that they serve will be lost. And, there are people who argue that, back in the '80s and '90s, when women were all in support roles and were pretty marginalized, that you know, we were still the greatest fighting force. But the issue becomes, you know, we're living in this modern world, this modern world includes women in, you know, leadership roles, and it only stands to reason that you would see that in the military as well. And the other thing is that the services are having harder and harder time attracting high quality recruits to man these organizations. And so, if you alienate women from that population you are alienating roughly 50% of the American people. And kind of hamstringing your chances of having a fully manned force.
SIERRA: Is there anything that, you know, you feel like you wanna add? Anything that you feel like the story is missing?
SEXTON: No, I think the only thing I'll say is that I just really appreciate all the people that are still pushing and still trying to make a change. And don't give up. It seems like we're getting close.
For resources used in this episode and more information, visit CFR.org/whyitmatters and take a look at the show notes.
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Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is created and produced by Asher Ross, Jeremy Sherlick, and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria. Rafaela Siewert is our associate podcast producer. Our intern is Natalia Lopez.
Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. Extra help for this episode was provided by Kali Robinson, Sophie Yass, and Diana Roy.
Original music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. Special thanks go to Richard Haass and Jeff Reinke, as well as the Women in Foreign Policy team.
For Why It Matters, this is Gabrielle Sierra signing off. See you soon!
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