In the lead up to Veterans Day, we'll be sharing information about military sexual assaults. This is the first post in the series of three.

By Jenny Horn

Women remain a minority in the armed services making up only 16.5% of those individuals, yet nearly 1 in 4 U.S. servicewomen reports being sexually assaulted in the military and more than 50% report experiencing sexual harassment. Victims have the option to (1) file restricted reports, allowing a complainant to disclose events and receive counseling and health care while the details of the report remain confidential and without investigation, or (2) file unrestricted reports, thereby prompting a full investigation. 

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (N.C.I.S.) leads the investigations, but often warns victims that courts-martial (judicial court for members of the armed services) rarely end in convictions. Even further, the NCIS often neglects to take even administrative action against accused perpetrators, and of the more than 6,200 sexual assault reports made by the U.S. service members in fiscal year 2020, only 50 (0.8%) ended in sex-offense convictions under the Uniform Code of Military Justice -- roughly one third as many convictions seen in 2019. 

Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, commanders themselves decide whether to investigate and pursue legal action, as opposed to using dedicated law enforcement that oversee the greater “civilian” world for all other, non-military criminal cases -- this practice and  poses a great risk of injustice when handling sex-related crimes. For instance, courts-martial dropped by 69% from 2007 to 2017, according to the Military Times, likely because commanders are instead choosing administrative rather than legal punishments, resulting in a smoother bureaucratic process for them but milder punishments for perpetrators and an injustice to victims. Additionally, while military rapists are rarely disciplined, their victims are often punished for reporting what happened in the first place. According to a 2018 survey of active-duty service members by the Department of Defense, 38% of servicewomen who reported their assaults later experienced professional retaliation. 

Many veterans who survive sexual violence during service then have to fight a second battle with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs when they cease service, as the process of obtaining VA Disability benefits for the enduring mental health effects of military sexual trauma is an unfair fight in which veterans are often unsuccessful due to unregulated and under-reported discirmination by the VA against their claims. In 2011, the Veterans Benefits Administration lowered the threshold of evidence for veterans to “prove” they were sexually assaulted, which helps them qualify for PTSD-related disability benefits, but a 2018 report by the VA Inspector General found that the agency nevertheless denied 46% of all medical claims related to military sexual-trauma-induced PTSD and that nearly half of those denied claims were improperly processed.

Furthermore, servicewomen and female veterans who have experienced sexual assault are at a far higher risk for suicide, are twice as likely as other women veterans to later experience intimate-partner violence, and about twice as likely as other women veterans to become homeless. From 2007 to 2017, the age-adjusted suicide rate among women veterans rose by 73%, and according to Department of Defense data, in 2019 women accounted for 31% of all suicide attempts among active-duty service members.

We must do better by our servicemembers and veterans.

Photo credit: Sexual assault prevention training, by PO2 Luis Chavez, US Navy

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