March 14, 2019

Bringing MST home, to Congress

Sen. Martha McSally visiting women of the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing in Southwest Asia in 2015Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona captured the attention of Congress, and of the nation, last week when she revealed in a hearing that she had been raped by a superior officer while serving in the Air Force. It was a top story from NPR to Fox News.

“Like you, I am also a military sexual assault survivor,” she told the witnesses at a hearing of Senate Armed Services subcommittee on personnel, of which she is a member, on March 6th. She did not report the incidents, she testified, because she was ashamed and confused, and in later attempts to talk to Air Force officials about them felt “like the system was raping me all over again.”

The hearings came in the wake of the recent Defense Department annual report on sexual violence and harassment at the academies, which noted that reported assaults were up 47% over the previous year. As has often been noted, in the military, commanders, not courts, determine how such cases are handled, a distinction that has occasioned considerable debate in recent years, with calls for the cases to be taken over by civilian authorities and/or for commanders to be sensitized to the issues and dynamics involved.

Some witnesses echoed this position, calling for removing that authority from commanders and the military completely and having the public legal system prosecute sexual assault. Col. Don M. Christensen, the former Air Force chief prosecutor, called for lawyers, not commanders, to prosecute in cases of military assault; Col. Ellen Haring, CEO of Service Women’s Action Network, also called for removal of commanders from the process. The witness from “Save our Heroes,” which works to ensuring justice in the military judicial system, said that non-military issues like sexual assault are best left to civilian authorities. One witness called SHARP – the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program – a joke.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, the ranking member of the subcommittee and now a presidential candidate, has made sexual assault and harassment one of her signature issues. Her proposed Military Justice Improvement Act – which was first introduced in 2013 – would remove decisions about assault cases from the chain of command.

Sen. McSally, a 26-year Air Force veteran, takes a different tack; she was advocating for commanders to keep authority over prosecution even though they are not trained in criminal justice: “I very strongly believe that the commander must not be removed from the decision-making responsibility of preventing, protecting, and prosecuting military sexual assault.” [The senator is pictured visiting women of the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing in Southwest Asia in 2015] Another witness called for trained military judges.

The frustrating thing – the sad thing – the enraging thing – is that these stories are not new. Sen. Gillibrand has introduced that bill every year for the last eight years. There was a spirited legislative debate between here and the military over the first one. She lost that round – but a sweeping legislative reform was enacted in its wake the following session. It radically changed the MST processes – ending the requirement that survivors be present at Article 32 hearings; creating a victim advocate that represents the survivor throughout any legal proceeding; removing the good character discharge option for alleged perpetrators; eliminating the statute of limitations; expediting any unit transfers upon request of the survivor; and expanding reporting options – resulting an approach that is far more progressive than any state laws on the subject.

Yes, SHARP used to be a joke, and even part of the problem, replete with victim blaming. No longer is that the case, however. The changes brought about in response to these laws, and growing awareness of the issue, have ushered in a different climate. The SHARP handouts of today are quite explicit, explaining for example that it is sexual assault when you perform an act like “tea bagging” (an act that we will not describe in email). Colleges and universities would do well to steal a few of the materials. (Speaking of which, campuses are remarkably dangerous, and Sen. Gillibrand’s efforts at reform there are timely and laudable.)

Sen. McSally – the first American woman to fly in combat – rose to the rank of colonel before retiring from Air Force. We may differ with the distinguished senator and fighter squadron commander about the corrective actions to take. But she is right about the importance of commanders. Ultimately, no matter what policy or procedure is in place, it’s going to fall to command to set the tone. That is what prevents assaults from occurring in the first place.

Thankfully, SHARP is “sharply focused” on prevention, teaching bystander intervention, and elucidating what constitutes consent. And the difference from relatively recently is palpable. In our training sessions for SHARP Specialists, we’ve seen a marked cultural shift from the extensive awareness building and myth busting we had to do  just a few short years ago. Now it’s nearly the exact opposite: Specialists are almost afraid to receive a report because they know that if they screw it up (like not finishing their paperwork within 24 hours) they will be reprimanded. They send it up the chain of command as quickly as possible.

We would advocate for these changes, which align with those proposed by some of the survivors and a number of the judge advocates general:

  1. Train command about victim-blaming and survivor sensitivity
  2. Implement metrics to hold commanders accountable
  3. Make the victim advocate position legitimately a volunteer position (avoid the “voluntold” type)

Meanwhile, we’re working to train military commanders so that experiences like Rep. McSally’s do not continue to occur.


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