As Congress and the Pentagon rush reforms to curb sex assaults in the military, they must focus foremost on raising trust in military justice and in the care of victims. Only than will reporting rates rise.
In coming days, Congress will take up a range of bills aimed at reducing sexual misconduct in the American military. Each of the armed services knows it has a problem and is working hard at reforms of its own. The scope of the problem is indeed disturbing: In addition to recent high-profile sexual assault cases, the Pentagon says only a fraction of the 26,000 soldiers who experienced “unwanted sexual contact” last year reported it.
Most of the proposed remedies would make it easier to simply report sexual violence or harassment. Two-thirds of personnel who have reported sexual misconduct – both men and women – say they have experienced some form of retaliation. This climate of fear needs to be replaced with a climate of trust and the assurance of justice that will help raise reporting rates.
Any military relies on a high level of trust within combat units to be effective. In addition, civilian society looks to its military as a model of discipline and service to others, or what Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, calls the “spiritual health” of soldiers in their sacred duty to take care of each other and not prey on each other.
In addition, young people will shy away from joining the service if sexual predators are not prevented from joining the military or not weeded out swiftly within its ranks.
Perhaps the most affirmative reform would be an increase in the care for those who report a sex crime. The Air Force has a pilot program that provides legal and other counseling to victims. This advocacy for victims needs to be quickly expanded with the support from Congress.