By Carol Rock
A group of veterans and their supporters successfully presented a 10,000-signature petition asking for transparency and open hearings to the leader of the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday, but are playing a waiting game to see what happens next in the Lackland sexual assault scandal.
Members of Protect Our Defenders visited the offices of Congressman Buck McKeon in the Rayburn Office Building in Washington D.C. on Thursday and had what organizers described as “a powerful day” when the presentation was made.
“Brave men and women from our armed services came to Congress to petition our representatives in charge of oversight of the military to step up and protect our defenders by demanding an open hearing about the widening Lackland sexual assault scandal,” said Brian Purchia, spokesman for the group. “Rep. Buck McKeon’s staff met with military sexual assault survivors and accepted a petition signed by more than 10 thousand citizens demanding they open the doors and get to the bottom of the criminal scandal at Lackland. This is a good first step. But, this is an epidemic that has gone on for decades with more than a half million victims — it is time for real leadership to fix the broken system of military justice.”
McKeon’s staff, in concert with House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) released a statement regarding the meeting and the issue after the completion of the briefing.
“We want to thank Secretary Donely for providing today’s briefing. We are deeply concerned about what has happened – and what the investigations may yet reveal- at Lackland Air Force Base. We expect the Air Force to be open and transparent with the results of its investigations. Today’s briefing is a good step in that direction, but this committee expects to be fully informed as this issue evolves.
“We understand that today’s briefing generated concerns because it was not open to the public. We want to be very clear, we are committed to making sure that sexual offenders are prosecuted and victim’s rights are protected. In sensitive cases such as these, open hearings can jeopardize ongoing prosecutions and investigations. This is another step in our long-standing oversight of this issue. It is by no means the final step.
“We will continue to follow this important issue very closely. All allegations should be investigated, and individuals involved in inappropriate or criminal behavior should be with dealt properly. We will utilize our oversight responsibilities to ensure our service members are protected and necessary procedures are installed to help prevent future abuses.
“The committee has been actively involved in efforts to prevent sexual assault, assist victims, and prosecute perpetrators over the past several years. This year, the committee included several provisions to further refine the Services’ and the Department of Defense’s efforts on sexual assault. We stand committed to working with the Department to eliminate sexual assault among those serving in our Armed Forces.”
McKeon’s office also offered a review of the previous actions of the legislature:
Recent Actions To Stop Sexual Assault In The Military
This spring the House Armed Services Committee included many bi-partisan reforms in the FY13 National Defense Authorization Act aimed at stopping sexual assault in the military, including:
* Creating special victim teams for the investigation, prosecution and victim support in connection with sexual assault as well as child abuse and domestic violence.
* Requirement for commanders to conduct annual organizational climate assessments which include matters relating to sexual assault.
* Establish that the disposition authority for sexual assault offenses would be no lower than the special court martial convening authority at the rank of either Colonel or in the case of the Navy, Captain.
* Curriculum within each military department to provide sexual assault prevention and response training and education during pre-command and command courses.
* Establish a record on the disposition of sexual assault cases to be retained for 20 years.
Some background on the subject, provided by Protect Our Defenders:
At least 38 female trainees at the Air Force’s sole recruiting center in San Antonio, Texas say they were raped or sexually assaulted by their instructors. The officer who would be the Air Force’s new Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Welsh III recently told Congress, “what we have been doing is not working” to address the epidemic of sexual assault in the military. But, Rep. McKeon has yet to call for a hearing and investigation about the criminal scandal at Lackland. Instead, Rep. McKeon is holding a closed-door briefing with the Air Force Secretary.
“It is time for our elected officials that have been put in charge of oversight of our armed services to do their job. Lackland is just the tip of the iceberg – the most current example of a much larger problem,” said Nancy Parrish, President of Protect Our Defenders. “Of course, the Air Force must investigate and prosecute the few cases that have actually been reported, but that won’t fix the broken system. After the most visible instances are adjudicated they will declare mission accomplished – until the next time – and there will be a next time without fundamental reforms. We must not let Lackland become another footnote in history of government failing to fix the epidemic of sexual assault in our military, as was the case with Tailhook in 1991 and Aberdeen in 1997.”
More than 20 years ago, 87 servicewomen were sexually assaulted while serving in the U.S. Navy, in what became known as the “Tailhook scandal.” Paula was one of the 87. The former Naval Aviator reported the incident to senior officers, but they did nothing. So she went public. Today, Paula is going public again demanding Rep. McKeon open a congressional hearing about Lackland and then legislate fundamental reforms.
“Causes exists to empower anyone to build a grassroots movement for change,” said Matt Mahan, Causes CEO. “We feel privileged to be a platform for engaged citizens like Paula Coughlin-Puopolo to get out their message and rally others in support of their cause.”
Seventy-eight members of Congress have also called on Rep. Buck McKeon to open a Lackland hearing and now more than 10,000 citizens have demanded it.
“How many serial sexual assault trials in the military is it going to take before Congress does something real and effective to remove the reporting of assaults from of the chain of command and into a third party,” said military sexual assault survivor, Paula Coughlin-Puopolo.
Last year, there were an estimated 19,000 military rapes and sexual assaults, but only 3,200 victims reported the attacks and out of those only 191 cases resulted in court martial conviction. The Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that there are now over a half a million veterans that have experienced military sexual trauma.
“This is a problem that can be fixed. It’s being addressed in the Catholic Church, it’s being addressed at Penn St – it must be addressed in the military. There are no excuses for our elected leaders to stand on the sidelines and not take fundamental action,” said survivor Brian Lewis.
The Department of Defense estimates that only 13.5% of sexual assaults in 2010 were reported. And of those few that did report, over 75% wouldn’t do so again if given the chance. Why? Because victims are often blamed, fear career ending retaliation, and are required to report their assault by fellow soldiers to a superior, not law enforcement or medical personnel.
Ms. McClendon, now a college professor believes that the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act – or STOP Act (H.R. 3435) is the best legislative option to strengthen our military and fix the core problem. The legislation removes the reporting, oversight, investigation, and victim care from the normal chain of command and places jurisdiction in an autonomous and unbiased office comprised of civilian and military experts. Introduced by Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) the STOP Act currently has 125 co-sponsors.
“You cannot trust the military under its current structure to effectively treat sexual assault,” said McClendon. “They can’t be trusted with the investigation, the treatment of the victim and the prosecution of the criminal. So why can they be trusted with coming up with a plan to fix the epidemic? The DOD cannot effectively police itself. We need outside intervention.”
Over the past year Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has announced several half measures to address the crisis of military sexual trauma, like bumping the reporting of rape and sexual assault further up the chain of command. But, this does little to address the problem. Many survivors have made it abundantly clear that senior commanders are just as capable of covering up assaults and frequently do. Commanders are incentivized to sweep problems under the rug as their careers can be adversely affected if a rape or sexual assault happens under their watch. And the DOD reports, “39% of women report that the perpetrator was a military person of higher rank and 23% indicated the offender was someone in their chain of command.”