After-the-Uniform Advocacy: Opening Doors to Combat Sexual Violence in the Military

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After-the-Uniform Advocacy: Opening Doors to Combat Sexual Violence in the Military

Soon after the 2012 release of “The Invisible War,” a documentary about sexual assault and rape in the U.S. military, Defense Secretary Panetta acknowledged the epidemic in a press release.  At one of many grassroots screenings, an attendee disdainfully confronted me about speaking out against sexual violence in the military.   I unequivocally responded “How could I not?"  The Department of Defense (DOD), the largest and powerfully “insulated” federal agency, would have willfully kept “it” in the closet in spite of its failed and publicly-scoffed “zero tolerance” policy and its dated military justice system.  “Saving face” would have trumped facing the problem head on.  Silence perpetuated the tolerated, ignored and condoned problem.  During the decades-long protracted silence, perpetrators perpetrated in what could be described as an impunity-friendly territory.  Meanwhile, tens of thousands of veterans, male and female survivors of all ages and from all peace and wartime eras, have been receiving health care from the Veterans Administration (VA), the second largest federal agency.  Veterans who found the VA entered their doors and with tormented courage told their story…began the grueling process of unburdening themselves…healing…one at a time.  This silent march for help was squadrons and brigades of veterans whose stories were not always believed…found unbelievable if for no other reason than these stories did not fit our beliefs of our military’s character.  The stories were beyond uncomfortable and health care providers, families and friends could not wrap their minds around “it.”  One story at a time shared in an office here and there across the nation and recorded in privacy-protected folders kept the magnitude of the systemic problem under the public’s radar and put service members at daily risk (estimated 70 assaults per day in 2012).  But the silence “saved face” for DOD by keeping the public in the dark.  Only when the doors opened was the public informed and the silence broken.  Then change ensued.   

Most who volunteer to join the armed forces do not likely understand the true ramifications of the commitment to sacrifice some of the same rights and privileges citizens of our nation enjoy.  They wear the uniform proudly believing that protection of our nation’s coveted values, rights and privileges for all citizens, in and out of uniform, is tantamount to exercising free and independent thought and speech every day.  In the past few months, interest in changing the military justice system from the inside out met with enough resistance to prompt two Air Force Judge Advocate General (JAG) officers to end their careers.  Don Christensen, now President of Protect Our Defenders, and Maribel Jarzabek expressed perspectives about the military justice system that diverged from others’ preferences.  When in uniform, the pressure to conform can be stifling and retaliatory:  downgraded performance evaluations, admonishments, questionable assignments, workplace ostracism, humiliating shunning…all undesirable outcomes that can make one’s life miserable.  While both officers remained true to their beliefs, they paid a heavy price for “bucking the system.” 

They now have the opportunity to engage in one of the most rewarding journeys of their lives--after-the-uniform advocacy, determined and purposeful participation in the legislative process and perpetuation of candid public discourse.  Because survivors of military sexual violence, experienced military counsel and advocates refuse to be silenced, continued reform of the military justice system remains a sustainable possibility.

DOD is legally tasked to review the Uniform Code of Military Justice annually, but it wasn’t unsolicited change from the inside that provided all military service members long overdue legal protections.  It was pent-up outrage from survivors of military sexual violence and advocates who spoke freely and publicly about the inherent injustices prevalent in the military culture and judicial system.  Congressional legislators passed laws imposing change to an archaic “steeped-in-tradition” justice system.  In addition to increased accountability through procedural requirements, the laws passed in the 2013 and 2014 National Defense Authorization Acts are many and significant.  To the lay person, it is likely surprising that many of these reforms were not in place long ago.  They appear to be fundamental basic human rights. 

Service members understandably assume they are “uniformly” protected under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  Even if they do not make that assumption, they are not trained to probe that system, let alone challenge it.  What is self-evident is that this nation’s military is entrusted with the profound responsibility of carrying out a completely distinct system of justice for non-military and military-specific offenses that effectively alienates its employees from fellow citizens’ civil judicial system.  Jonathan Turley’s article, “The Pocket Republic,” explores inherent fault lines associated with a military governance system that is separate and distinct from civilian society and akin to a sovereign state system.  Alarms should be ringing loud and clear…this kind of trusteeship warrants uninhibited “check and balance” oversight.  If the system and Code languishes from an unwillingness to change, an appetite to cling to the status quo, a hierarchy in which rank trumps professional ethics and knowledge as well as abuses of power, it is an extreme disservice to our All Volunteer Force and to those whose careers end because of well-intentioned dissent regarding reform. 

Gary A. Haugen and Victor Boutros, authors of “The Locus Effect,” explore in depth how a plague of violence in societies with broken justice and dysfunctional law enforcement systems destabilizes communities.

In these settings, perpetrators (of sexual violence) don’t need to make the justice system fail; it fails all by itself.  It’s like the burglar who sees the exterior sign indicating that there is an alarm system but then finds that no one has bothered to turn the system on.  He doesn’t have to do anything to overcome the alarm system—it’s already going to fail.

Isn’t it obvious that there should not be a steady stream of sexual violence victims migrating from the Department of Defense to the Veterans Administration?  If DOD had to line item budget for the health care and disability consequences of this travesty, not the VA, would they be more motivated to make real and lasting change?  If it meant one less aircraft, one less tank, one less ship or one less widget because the budget was unpalatable to Congress would it make the agency more urgently accountable?  Without trivializing the invisible scars of the survivors who left the military, it directly hit their pocketbooks and adversely impacted their lifetime livelihood.

Alarms should be ringing loud and clear…evolutionary change to the military justice system is inevitable if it is to remain a credibly viable separate and distinct structure.  It is unquestionably healthy to keep this issue and others like it in the public’s eye.  Transparency is just one means to keep the DOD more honest about actual outcomes…”unspinned” results.  It means taxpayers have a better idea who is entrusted with their loved ones and how their tax dollars are expended.  Billions of dollars continue to be spent hurting and healing an entire army of U.S. citizens with noble intentions who signed the dotted line to sacrifice their lives for inalienable rights.  If DOD really intends on righting this wrong for the long haul, it is all about who is going to lead, follow or get out of the way.

Keep the doors open and the spotlights on!

January 6, 2015