Service Women Storm Capitol Hill
Last month, the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), an advocacy organization for female service members and veterans, held its second annual Truth and Justice Summit in Washington, D.C. The event brought together over 100 advocates, supporters, and sexual assault survivors to advocate for an end to sexual violence in the military. OutServe-SLDN was a proud organizational partner to the summit.
On the first day of the event, attendees participated in a variety of workshops including topics such as Working with Trauma Survivors; Sexual Violence and Criminal Justice: Myths vs. Facts; Telling Your Story; and Navigating the Military Sexual Trauma (MST) Claims Process. The second day of the conference was an advocacy day for participants to lobby for change and share their stories with members of Congress.
The event took place in the shadow of a slew of discouraging and disturbing developments. Just this year a Lieutenant General in the Air Force was at the center of a national controversy when he reinstated an officer with a stroke of a pen after that officer had been convicted by jury of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to a year in military prison. In May, an officer in the Air Force who led the Air Force sexual assault prevention program was arrested on suspicion of drunkenly grabbing a woman near the Pentagon. The following day, the DoD Sexual Assault and Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) reported that sexual assaults and related offenses had increased in the military by an estimated 35 percent between 2011 and 2012.
But the summit also took place in the wake of unprecedented progress for women in the military. The last National Defense Authorization Act included a key provision that allows service women to access abortion services in military facilities in event of rape or incest; before, military health providers were required by law to turn them away. In 2013, the Senate Armed Services Committee held its first ever hearing on military sexual assault. And of course, earlier this year, then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women serving in ground combat positions. SWAN’s work was critical in achieving each of these milestones.
The event also served as an opportunity to recognize members of Congress for their work to eliminate sex discrimination and sexual violence in the military. Senator. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) were among those honored, and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) delivered the keynote address.
Actress Jennifer Beals, who many OutServe-SLDN supporters may recognize as “Bette” from the television series, The L Word, or “Alex” from the movie, Flashdance, headlined the event. Beals said her decision to join the movement to end military sexual violence was influenced by her role in Lauren, a YouTube web series where she plays a U.S. Army Major who struggles to bring justice to a survivor of military sexual assault in her unit. “I’ve learned that the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs has a lot of work to do to make sure that sexual violence in the ranks ends and that survivors get the resources and benefits they need to move forward,” she reflected. Beals is also a known ally to the LGBT community, having received the “Ally for Equality” award at last year’s Human Rights Campaign national dinner.
Though the summit boasted major headliners and participants celebrated the most recent victories in Congress and at the Pentagon, the tone was far from triumphant. Overwhelmingly, the service members, veterans, and supporters left with renewed passion and an even stronger commitment to ending the inequality that continues to plague women who serve in uniform.
And rightfully so; the DoD has disclosed that over 3,300 sexual assaults were reported in 2012 alone, though they estimate the actual number of incidents of unwanted sexual contact to be closer to 26,000 due to under reporting. According to SWAN, these statistics highlight a culture of victim blaming that strongly discourages survivors of sexual assault from reporting these crimes and a severe distrust of the military criminal justice system, which systematically fails to bring perpetrators to justice.
The first step to fixing this broken process, SWAN contends, is taking it outside the chain of command. Unlike the civilian criminal justice system, commanders—who are undoubtedly and perhaps understandably biased—are able to exercise undue influence over criminal proceedings. As a result, criminals walk free. This not only damages the military’s reputation of maintaining high standards of conduct, but it also sends a clear message to young recruits that sexual assault is a crime that will frequently go unpunished.
In May, Senator Gillibrand introduced the Military Justice Improvement Act of 2013 with a bipartisan group of lawmakers. If passed into law, the bill would revise to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) to require independent military prosecutors, not commanders, handle these cases from beginning to end. The purpose of the bill is clear. To prevent sexual assault, there must be punishment for those who commit sexual assault. To bring justice to survivors of sexual assault, there must be punishment for those who commit sexual assault.
Katie Miller serves as the Chair of the Government Affairs Committee on the OS-SLDN Board of Directors.