War Stories: Time for Change

Rape in the military is not a new topic. But it is yet again the subject of congressional hearings, military commissions and media reports. The Congressional Women's Caucus held a packed hearing Wednesday to try to understand why they were holding yet another hearing on this recurrent topic. "I know I don't want to be part of another hearing that doesn't come to much," said chairwoman Rep. Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat. So why has the long-standing problem of military sexual assault not been solved or at least better addressed? The answer seems to lie in the military command structure itself.

The military, by most accounts, experiences similar rates of rape to the civilian world. It's probably best to compare sexual assaults on military bases to those on college campuses, explains Scott Berkowitz, a calm, reasonable expert on this incendiary topic. He's president of the nation's largest anti-sexual-assault organization, called RAINN--Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. The difference between military and civilian sexual assault, he says, is in the abysmal way the military handles reported rapes. There is no confidential way to report the crime. "Most victims simply won't report without the guarantee of confidentiality," Berkowitz said at Wednesday's hearing. That suggests, of course, that the rates of rape in the military are higher than we know.

Not only is the process not confidential, victims have to go through their chain of command just as they do for everything else. "There is such a special psychology to this crime," Berkowitz says. "The idea that the first person you have to tell is your boss and [that] every colleague is going to know within hours is just too much." Even if a soldier first reports a rape privately to a chaplain, the commander is eventually going to have to get involved if the victim wants to do anything about it. "We have a commandcentric military-justice system," explains Eugene Fidell, a military-justice expert and president of the National Institute of Military Justice. "Who gets prosecuted, for what and what kind of sanctions they face are decisions made by commanders rather than prosecutors."

Fidell explains that this system goes back more than two centuries, to the days of England's famed admiral Horatio Nelson. That was the era when a captain had ultimate authority to maintain order on board a ship. But other countries are starting to move away from the British model. "Our legal system has evolved since then, and sociologically we have changed," Fidell says. "A gender-integrated workforce was unheard of in Lord Nelson's day." Fidell suggests that Congress needs to take up a review of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

The current system can often lead to a very subjective kind of justice. The so-called "good-soldier defense" is often used to reduce charges against the accused. The thinking: if a soldier has sacrificed enough for the country, proven himself or herself in battle, then some crimes can be forgiven or at least tolerated. The rates of conviction in the military seem to be a lot lower than in the civilian world. Statistics are hard to come by, but in her book "For Love of Country: Confronting Rape and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military," T. S. Nelson sites 1996 military statistics that show that of the 440 rapes reported in the Army that year, 33 (or 8 percent) ended in conviction. In the civilian world it's more like 103 out of 440 (or 23 percent).

In the civilian world, rates of rape are on the decline. Berkowitz says that's largely because rapists are getting locked up for longer. That takes away the bad guys as well as serving as a deterrent to others. In the military, that message is not being sent because the punishment--when it is meted out at all--has often been too soft. The accused may get docked pay or an Article 15 disciplinary report. "[Rape] isn't being treated like a crime," Berkowitz says. "It's being treated like a parking ticket."

But he has faith that the very command culture that has exacerbated the problem of rape in the ranks, can also be part of the solution. "It is that military discipline that give me some hope that we can fix this," Berkowitz says. He believes education and training can work. Others would like to reform the UCMJ. Still others are advocating for a separate victim advocate within the military. No doubt there will be many more hearings before the solution is found.

War Stories Mail Call

Readers have responded to T. Trent Gegax's last War Stories column about the toll that stress was taking on the soldiers in Iraq. Most expressed concern about poor military morale and some questioned the Bush administration's reasons for the war. Excerpts:

My wife and I were both active-duty military during the first gulf war. We supported the military action then, but cleary this military engagement has lies, deceit and American and "Coalition" blood written all of it. Our current president hides behind 9/11 and uses the deaths of those people as an excuse to send U.S. troops in harm's way. Clearly the deployment rotation is taking a heavy toll on the U.S. military personnel and their families. The U.S. has also taken a beating from President Bush's "big stick" policies that haven't been seen since Teddy Roosevelt. My wife is currently at Camp Anaconda, Balad, Iraq, and can positively say that the morale of the U.S. military is low.

This is one story in which the media is finally right. First of all, the National Guard should not be used overseas for yearlong deployments. My son has been given antidepressents and is on a suicide watch. And no, he does not have relationship or financial problems at home. The National Guard are treated like second-class citizens while their lives are at risk as much as the regulars. What's even more disturbing is that while we have millions of dollars to fix and repair other countries, our own is getting hit with budget cuts. The one thing that has kept my son going is looking forward the his job with the Forest Service when he returns, although he doesn't realize that because of budget cuts he won't have a job. How's he going to feel then, that's the thanks he gets for putting his life on the line!

I have friends who have family fighting in Iraq--one who is even in charge of protecting Paul Bremer--and I lost several friends and loved ones in the trade center attacks. I worked in 7 World Trace Center for nine years. But the events in Iraq and Afghanistan sicken me. The lack of security precautions that are in place for our troops are unacceptable. Every day we hear of another U.S. soldier killed in an attack. The government's "postwar" plans significantly underestimated life after Saddam, and our brothers, sisters, mothers and dads are dying because of it. I now have little faith in our intelligence-gathering and our administration's ability to see the big picture.

I'm a Vietnam-era veteran and American citizen. My nephew, a career Marine who is finishing his 20 years next year, came back from the front lines of the initial attack on Baghdad in one piece. My heart is heavy for those family members whose relatives either never came back or are suffering serious physical and emotional wounds as a result of this war.

My son is overseas preparing for rotation to Iraq. I am proud that he is serving his country, but disappointed that our president and vice president (especially the vice president) are using our country to serve themselves.

Where do you get these guys? Morale is not bad in Iraq. There are some good points made about money and family matters, but overall morale is pretty strong.