A week or so ago, I was watching “Real Time with Bill Maher,” and toward the end of the hour, the host started a discussion about sexual assault in the military with the headline about Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Krusinsk, the officer in charge of the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention Program recently arrested for groping a female in a parking lot. Maher stated that the country has been under the mistaken impression that progress is being made, when in fact, attacks are already up 7,000 from the previous year (October 2011- September 2012) . Only a few days ago, more reports involving the Army’s prevention officers were brought to light. This raises the question: Will people at the top of the chain of command finally do something that will really change the way the military handles rape and sexual assault? While the Armed Services Committee and others in high places have come at this issue by assessing factors and “causes,” training and education, and with optimism that greater reporting will lead to “accountability and transparency,” what really needs to be looked at is the military system of law.
When I joined the military somewhat out of desperation (like many other people do), I had absolutely no idea what I was in for. And no matter how I may attempt to explain the basic training experience, I’ve become unsure it’s something that words alone can convey. There are films (Biloxi Blues, An Officer and a Gentleman, Full Metal Jacket) that have tried, and some of them do give people a peek into one aspect of the experience, but there’s really no way to give the whole of it a true, complete picture. I could tell you about getting off the bus at Fort McClellan, Alabama with two giant suitcases, drill sergeants screaming their first instructions to our group: “Do not let your bags touch the ground, or you’ll be down there next to them, knocking out push-ups!” Terrified, and never having done a push-up in my life, I stood with my overpacked luggage, tears rolling down my cheeks; my bags stayed up. I could tell you that from that moment on, morning till night, every moment of this naive recruit’s time was spent being indoctrinated, examined, picked apart, called names, filled with information, collecting equipment, clothing and instruction; told what to do every second of every day. We were told to use the bathroom, how long it could take, when to shower, get up (hello metal trash cans rolling down the aisle); put in line to eat, given five minutes to shove down whatever food we could, sent running, marching, hiking, climbing over, under, through; told when to smoke, where to look, where not to look, what to say, when we could speak and to whom; above all, our minds were being broken down so we would follow orders without question—without even thinking. But even if I tell you that and more, you still wouldn’t entirely understand—it is a system of brainwashing one can only perceive through experience. One of the first things drilled into recruits is the hierarchy of rank; “respect” (fear) of any rank higher than one’s own is mandated and ingrained. And of course this chain of command is necessary for the military to be effective on the battlefield, but because of the way things work, it also sets up a system of abuse.
Toward the end of my eight weeks of basic training, before advancing to military police Advanced Individual Training (AIT), there was a post “field day” of sports and competition, and part of our unit was assigned to do the equipment set-up and clean-up. A group from my platoon reported to a supply Sergeant Major (SGM) for the day, and we set about whatever tasks he gave us to do. The SGM was different from our drill sergeants; more at ease, soft spoken and friendly, joking around with us and our group had plenty of down time in between jobs; it was a more relaxed day than any of us was used to. It was a good day, until it wasn’t. When everything had been cleaned up, electrical wires all rewound, lighting and equipment gathered, the SGM asked me to help him return some boxes to a classroom. I followed him through several hallways, to the door of a classroom he unlocked, went inside and then turned around as he closed the door behind us. We put down the boxes, and he came toward me, starting a conversation by asking about my family. I felt strange as he got very close to me; I wasn’t used to anyone of high rank speaking so intimately, and then as he talked about how much I must be missing home and feeling alone, my heart started pounding in fear. He put his arm around me and came in to kiss me. I was terrified. All I could think was that he was a Sergeant Major—nearly the highest ranking non-commissioned officer—and I was at the bottom, a Private. I didn’t know what to do, or what I could do. He started touching me, and I responded by saying, “No. Please no. No,” over and over again. He didn’t listen, pushed me back onto a desk…and I completely froze. I didn’t try to run, I didn’t scream or beat him or fight, I only said “No.” When he was finished, he fixed his clothes and just walked out. I stayed for a while, crying, frightened, trembling…and not knowing what to do. When I was able to gather myself, I left the classroom and went out to the field where my group had been—found a tree and sat by myself, crying again. One of the girls I’d become close with eventually found me there, and after much coaxing, I told her what happened. She said to me, “That’s rape, Cindy. He raped you—you have to report him.” I was ashamed and afraid. And who would take a Private’s word against a Sergeant Major? But my friend was persistent, and she said if I didn’t report him, she would do it herself. So we went together…and at first, it was pretty much as bad as I expected. I had to tell the story several times over, I was asked if I was sure—about the person, and exactly what had happened. I was asked if I knew how much trouble I’d be in if it was discovered I’d been out in a field with a fellow trainee. A Private accusing a high-ranking person is automatically suspect, especially in the basic training environment, because some people will try anything to get out. Military Police went to the classroom and found things as I’d described; I was taken to the hospital to be examined (and told I had been in shock)—the evidence could not be denied. My statement was taken and—here is the part where military law gets funny—that was the end of my involvement in the case. As it was explained to me, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) does not “require” the victim to be involved with the legal process, nor informed of the outcome of the case.
Because my Platoon and Drill Sergeants were Military Police, they were able to get information and passed some of it to me. The first I heard was, after the news broke that this SGM had been reported, several other female recruits came forward—I was not his first. Secondly, I was told that his wife had been killed in an accident within the past year, and that was his defense of his behaviour. And the last bit of information I received? The outcome of the SGM’s Court Martial (military court process) was forced retirement.
While I am no attorney, military or otherwise, I can share some general knowledge (learned in AIT) about how the military justice system works. For minor offenses, non-judicial punishment can be handed down by a unit’s commanding officer, at that CO’s discretion. Example (possibly a true story): Say a soldier was applying wax to the floor in her barracks room by heating the wax (quickly lighting it afire—a common practice) to melt and pour the wax, which would then be buffed to a shine. And say that soldier dropped the container of wax, causing the flame to spread across the floor, and necessitating the use of a fire extinguisher to put out the flames before the whole place went up in smoke. Well, that soldier’s commanding officer could then issue the soldier an Article 15 with discretionary punishment (restriction or extra duty), dock her pay, reduce her rank or merely give her a verbal or written admonishment. Now say that commanding officer was friendly with the soldier; might her non-judicial punishment be less than it would be for someone of whom she was not so fond? The answer is, yes, as a matter of fact, it might. But that’s okay; this is military law—not the real world. For criminal offenses though, a Court Martial is required. A Court Martial could involve military lawyers, a military judge, and sometimes, a panel of officers—though the simplest Court Martial might have only one officer (with no special legal experience required) passing down a judgement. If there is a panel of officers, the convening authority (usually the Commanding Officer—again, with no experience in legal matters required)) chooses them. With that power—to choose the officers who will mete out punishment—it’s easy to see the possibility of personal relationships also affecting Court Martial procedures and/or the outcomes.
This past Thursday, Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) spoke about legislation she is introducing (along with other lawmakers); the bill would affect the UCMJ, how the military handles sexual assault cases, and remove certain felonies from the military chain of command. And in his recent news conference, President Obama made it known that he finally gets it, saying we need swift and sure action, not “just more speeches or awareness programs or training.” Sexual offenders need to be “prosecuted, stripped of their position, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period.”
If a soldier is sexually assaulted or raped by a person senior to her (or him), that soldier is automatically on the defense. The military system of rank and chain of command isn’t something that can be changed, it’s the basis for how everything is run. But education and awareness is not enough to deter sexual attacks; it must be the position and philosophy of the organization—what is and is not acceptable—and the consequences that change. If an entire organization knows these offenses are covered up because of offenders’ rank, or not held to particular consequences because of relationships between ranking personnel, its law is subverted. It is clear, as they stand, the armed services are unable to deal with this crisis internally. Commanders cannot provide unbiased justice to their own perpetrators and victims equally. When it comes to rape and sexual assault (and perhaps any criminal offense), soldiers should go through the same impartial legal process as civilians. It is high time for this change.