Filmmaker Kirby Dick’s award-winning 2012 documentary, The Invisible War, estimates that one in five women in the U.S. military has been the victim of some kind of sexual assault. The film alleges that these crimes are often tolerated as a result of a pervasive institutional culture of self-protection. But that attitude may be changing.
The Defense Department said last month that the number of reported sexual assaults in the military jumped by 50 percent in fiscal 2013 over fiscal 2012. There were more than 5,000 reports over the past year, compared with 3,374 in fiscal 2012, 3,192 in fiscal 2011, and 3,158 in fiscal 2010.
Whether last year’s increase reflects victims’ growing willingness to report assaults, or an actual rise in incidents, the numbers still appear to understate the prevalence of sexual assault. After a confidential survey of 108,000 active-duty service members, the Pentagon estimated last May that 26,000 people in the armed forces were sexually assaulted in 2012, up from 19,000 in 2010.
Last year, Congress enacted and President Obama signed into law changes designed to curb such assaults. More remains to be done, however, and the only way to curb the epidemic may be to remove prosecution of these crimes from the traditional chain of command.
The new rules give victims new legal protections, mandate the discharge of military members after convictions for sex crimes, end the statute of limitations for such cases, and prohibit commanders from overturning jury convictions or reducing sentences in sexual-assault and rape cases. The latter provision arose from outrage over a decision by Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force in Europe, to overturn a sexual-assault conviction of a fighter pilot who has returned to active duty.
After she watched The Invisible War, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) decided to make curbs on military sexual assault a priority, the New Yorker magazine reported recently. Since then, she has campaigned to remove the prosecution of sexual crimes in the U.S. military from the chain of command and turn it over to independent military prosecutors.
She did not assemble enough votes in the Senate to support that measure, which also has not gotten the President’s backing. But Mr. Obama has ordered a report this year on the Pentagon’s efforts to reduce such assaults.
He warned that if the report doesn’t show progress, he will consider further reforms. The process needs to continue, and intensify.