Why Is There So Much Sexual Abuse In The Military? The Army has announced that a soldier who was coordinating a sexual assault prevention program in Texas is under investigation for "abusive sexual contact." That's fueling a growing debate about sexual assault in the military, and what can be done to stop it. Host Michel Martin talks about the issue in the Beauty Shop roundtable.

Why Is There So Much Sexual Abuse In The Military?

Why Is There So Much Sexual Abuse In The Military?

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The Army has announced that a soldier who was coordinating a sexual assault prevention program in Texas is under investigation for "abusive sexual contact." That's fueling a growing debate about sexual assault in the military, and what can be done to stop it. Host Michel Martin talks about the issue in the Beauty Shop roundtable.


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, after a disaster, naturally, grown-ups are worried about things like food and shelter, but kids still need to have fun. We'll speak with a man who's trying to help kids in distress do just that by making sure they can still play baseball. We'll hear more about that in just a few minutes.

But, first, it's time for our Beauty Shop conversation. That's where we get a fresh cut on hot topics with a panel of women journalists, commentators, bloggers and activists.

This week, we are talking about the very serious topic of sexual assault in the military. Just yesterday, the Army announced that a soldier who coordinated the Sexual Assault Prevention Program at Fort Hood is under investigation for, of all things, abusive sexual contact of subordinates. That came a week after the Department of Defense released numbers on sexual assaults in the military. The numbers are high. Some 26,000 such assaults were reported by service members. That number is up dramatically from where they were just a year ago.

We wanted to talk more about this problem and why it persists and what could be done about it, so we are joined by a group of women who've thought very deeply about this issue. This is probably a good time to mention that this subject might not be suitable for everybody.

So, with that being said, Anu Bhagwati is the executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, or SWAN. She's also a retired Marine officer. Amy Ziering is one of the producers behind the Oscar-nominated documentary, "The Invisible War," which is about sexual assault in the armed services. Also with us, Bridget Johnson. She's the Washington, D.C. editor for P.J. Media. That's a conservative libertarian commentary and news website. And she also covers the Pentagon.

So thank you all so much for joining us.

ANU BHAGWATI: Thanks for having us, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Anu...


MARTIN: Anu, let me start with you. The report from the Pentagon estimates that - this was self-reporting, OK - that 26,000 people in the armed forces say that they were sexually assaulted in 2012. Two years ago, that number was 19,000, but these individuals also said that very few of them had gone through the process of formally reporting this. And I want to ask you, first of all, what you make of the numbers. Are you surprised by this number, and why is it that so few of these reports have made its way into kind of formal charges?

BHAGWATI: Well, thanks for having me, Michel. I think the first thing to realize is that those 26,000 service members anonymously stated that they had been sexually assaulted. In other words, they did not officially report. Very few service members actually officially reported through the chain of command. And so we have an enormous situation of underreporting within the military. Underreporting is even worse within the military.

Service members also reported that - and well over 60 percent - that they fear reporting because of intimidation, because of the culture within the military that discourages support for victims, that encourages victim-blaming, that is filled with rape mythology. And so a part of the problem is the folks that you're reporting to are ultimately the commanding officers who are actually making legal decisions about whether or not criminal cases go forward to trial. Those folks, those senior officers, senior-enlisted leaders, are all completely engrained in military culture, which right now is backwards. It is a couple of generations behind the times in terms of understanding victim-blaming and understanding that, you know, victims are not responsible for being raped. It should be the perpetrators that are held accountable.

MARTIN: Amy Ziering, I want to bring you into this conversation, because you spoke with a number of women who had had this experience for your documentary, "The Invisible War." I just want to play a clip of one of the women, Tia Christopher. She was in the United States Navy. She talked about the reaction she got when she tried to report that she had been raped. Let's listen.


TIA CHRISTOPHER: They took me before my lieutenant commander. He says, do you think this is funny? And I said, what do you mean? He's like, is this all a joke to you? I was like, what do you mean? And he goes, you're the third girl to report rape this week. Are you guys, like, all in cahoots? Do you think this is a game?

MARTIN: Amy, based on the conversations you had, was this a common experience?

ZIERING: It was all too common. It was really shocking and astonishing to me, talking to these men and women. Over and over again, just repeated the same story as the second they reported in good faith, believing that they would be heard, believed, understood and justice would - actions to, you know, go after the perpetrators would be taken. Time and again, instead, they were disbelieved. They were challenged. They were scoffed at. They were mocked, and they were just told to sort of return to work or suck it up and, you know, act like nothing happened. And that was pretty, pretty shocking, and that was not an anomalous situation. That more was the norm, rather than the exception.

MARTIN: Bridget Johnson, talk to me about this. What is your perception of how the leadership in the Pentagon views this issue? Because we've been hearing over the years - I mean, I confess, I have been reporting on this subject for 10 years now, and the story never seems to change. You have the leaders in the Pentagon, the top leaders talk about this. I've personally attended, like, training sessions at Quantico where commanders have talked about the importance of this, the importance of dignity, the importance of fairness. And yet you continue to hear stories like this. What do you make of this?

BRIDGET JOHNSON: Right. And I do think that's unfortunate, because I think that this is a solution that needs to come from within and not, you know, necessarily from Congress on high. But I do have some concerns about the earliest days of Chuck Hagel. You know, I think that this coming at a transition time from Panetta to Hagel is not the best thing, and it wasn't the best thing for sequestration, either.

You know, I really feel that Hagel's kind of over his head right now with furloughs and cuts and...

MARTIN: But I'm asking you a different - I get your point on this, but I'm still interested in your perception of why - how this is viewed within the command structure of the Pentagon, based on your reporting here.

JOHNSON: That they have many things to juggle at the moment. That's how it feels. And so they're trying to juggle cuts. They're trying to juggle, you know, different defense challenges at the moment, and I think that they kind of feel like this is one more thing on the plate - not that it doesn't have importance, but it may not have the precedence that it should have.

MARTIN: And why do you have particular concerns about Chuck Hagel, the current defense secretary?

JOHNSON: I've just seen - you know, he's kind of over his head in getting used to the role, I think, right now. You can see at press conferences, etc., you know, he gets fielded a lot of standard questions, and he kind of shifts them over to General Dempsey. So when you're getting used to this role and so much is happening at this moment, you can see, you know, why somebody would be over their head on this.

MARTIN: Anu Bhagwati, what is your take on this and why this situation never seems to change? And I hope I'm not overstating the case, but just based on my own reporting on this issue over the years, I just feel like it's the same storyline over and over, that egregious things occur, and it seems to be - the focus seems to be on the targets of the behavior, the victims, as opposed to the perpetrators and getting a handle on that conduct. What's your perception of why this problem persists?

BHAGWATI: Well, the problem persists because very little has changed within the military. And I would strongly disagree with the other guest that the solution should come from within. The solution absolutely cannot come from within, and that's entirely why this problem persists is because, for the past several decades, Congress and the courts and the White House have consistently deferred back to the military to fix this problem. And it has been - you know, at this point, when military deference is sort of given to the military, I think there's a little bit of good faith that, you know, maybe there are some senior military leaders that really care about this issue. But, I mean, you know, the first 50 years of this crisis, you know, it was really a joke the way these crimes were committed and the care that victims were given.

But the solution lies in criminal justice reform, in making the military justice system at least on par with the civilian justice system. And we know how broken the civilian justice system is in terms of sex crimes and providing justice for victims. But the military lags behind even the civilian system. So it's still your boss or your boss' boss determining whether or not your case goes forward, and it's completely biased institutionally. I mean, how is it that sort of something that should lie in HR, right, becomes part of a criminal adjudication? It just - it makes no sense.

Commanding officers do - they are not lawyers. They are not judges, and yet they're endowed with the authority of lawyers and judges in the civilian world.

MARTIN: You know what's interesting, Amy? I just want to point - about the - your film, "The Invisible War," also interviews men who have talked about being sexually assaulted. It is interesting that a lot of people kind of attribute this problem to the fact that women are such a hyper-minority within the military. What - Bridget, help me, here - it's like 11 percent of active duty service members.

But you also interviewed a number of men who had been sexually assaulted. I just want to play a short clip of an interview you did with Michael Matthews. He was in the Air Force, and he talked about what happened to him when he was 19.


MICHAEL MATTHEWS: I went to the chow hall alone, and the next thing I know, I was laying on the ground. I was struck from behind, and two guys were holding me down and one guy was pulling my pants down. And, you know, he was taking care of his business. And, you know, I struggled, and I was being struck and hit and told, you know, told to shut up or they'd kill me.

MARTIN: So, Amy, you know, this is the kind of thing you hear about in prison. Right? So what is the - did you ever detect a through-line in why certain people were targeted? Like what was the point of this? I mean, you can see where in certain controlled environments you'd say, well, this is about dominance or this is about establishing a hierarchy or something. Did you ever notice any kind of through-line or any theme to why it is that certain people are targeted, why these assaults take place? Any certain situations in which they tend to take place?

ZIERING: Yeah. These are not random acts. I mean these take place because there are serial predators that are really cunning and skilled and know how to work a system, and the system is one in which they're not going to get prosecuted, so it's - that's the problem, is the military has an embedded serial predator problem and they're not brought - there's no repercussions for their actions. So that's why this crime is proliferating at these epidemic levels within the military. It's not a surprise, and yes, it's equal opportunity offender. It's gender-neutral.

Men and women are assaulted at pretty much the same rates, so it's something that the military - as Anu was saying, it really actually needs to take care of, can take care of and needs to stop, you know, covering up and acting like it's a problem going to go away.

MARTIN: Anu, let's talk in the time that we have left about the solutions that various people have brought forward. And Bridget, obviously I'm going to hear from you as well on this. I mean we know that members of Congress like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Senator Barbara Boxer of California, are set to introduce legislation on Thursday that would remove major criminal cases from the chain of command. Do you think that that's a good idea? And what other things do you believe should happen?

BHAGWATI: Senator Gillibrand has been really a leader in the last few months on this issue and we've been working closely with her on the legislation to be introduced tomorrow, so we know its content. And yes, absolutely it would fix the problem in terms of bias in the criminal justice system, and that's a huge factor in terms of victims' confidence in the culture, victims' confidence reporting. Right?

So we want more of those 26,000. I mean, first of all, we don't want any service members to be raped or assaulted, but if they are, we want more of those victims to come forward and report and we want to have a sense that the military criminal justice system isn't institutionally biased and so this bill would remove that bias by making sure it's not commanding officers that have what's called convening authority. They're not the ones determining if cases go forward or what happens in terms of jury selection or judge selection or, you know, even given the authority to reverse a criminal conviction, which is what commanding officers currently can do in criminal cases.

But it's actually attorneys and judges. In other words, impartial, legally trained experts who are in charge of that whole process.

MARTIN: Bridget, what about you? You were saying you think that the problem - the solution needs to come from within. What would that look like?

JOHNSON: Well, and when I was talking about a change coming from within, I'm talking more of a cultural change, and that's really hard to dictate from the outside, you know, when you're standing there in Congress and saying, you guys need to end your good ol' boys, you know, attitude over there.

You know, I think that this is a situation where people not only want to see swift and appropriate justice, but they want to see consistency. Are allegations treated with proper care? Are punishments consistent? Are they able to be upended easily if the superior officer happens to really like that person who is accused?

So I think that, you know, change can be successful and lasting coming from within, but you need to have the right people and those - obviously, as we've seen in those roles of overseeing sexual abuse cases - maybe somebody who's been in JAG, you know, maybe somebody who's, you know, already had extensive work with this instead of just, you know, as in the case of the Arlington guy who was arrested, just kind of oversaw that unit at one time or another.

MARTIN: Well, just what Bridget's referring to here is that just this past weekend an Air Force officer who oversaw sexual abuse training was himself arrested for groping a woman, a civilian woman in a parking lot who was able to defend herself and call the police.

But, you know, Bridget, I have to ask you about the cultural problem. I mean, I have to say that there are those who will be listening to our conversation and will say that this is just further proof that women don't belong in the military, they certainly don't belong in combat. And I want to know whether - that people within the military - is that really kind of part of the bottom line? They still just don't believe that women belong there.

JOHNSON: I would honestly say yes, there are some people who feel that way. You know, I've seen people try and use that as an excuse for women not being in combat roles, that, you know, it would just open this up more. It's completely the wrong approach to take.

ZIERING: If I can jump in - it's Amy.

MARTIN: Sure, Amy. Sure.

ZIERING: As the clip you played showed, it's not a woman - a man against woman crime. It's a crime against both men and women, so it actually doesn't have to do with women being in the military or not. People are being raped.

MARTIN: But there are those who certainly feel that way. I mean, you just know that there are certain people who believe that this is - that part of the issue here is that the presence of women is just somehow so provocative that that's why. Yeah.

ZIERING: But that's - you can just point out, that's a fallacy because statistically men are raped at a slightly larger rate than women in the military, so it's not a crime against women particularly.

MARTIN: Amy, before we let you go, we know that you've kept in touch with a number of the people you interviewed for "The Invisible War," and I'm interested whether they believe that change is coming, whether there are plans being made that would make it better for the next generation of service members.

ZIERING: I can't speak on their behalf. I mean I know that all of us are sort of quietly optimistic that at least something has changed and that this can't go - we can't go backwards. You know, hopefully we'll go forward, but certainly this is no longer a secret. People know this is a problem and let's hope we get the right pressures to adjust - you know, to make a difference.

I mean, Senator Gillibrand's been remarkable and we're hopeful that this legislation will pass, but I'm also really waiting for and hopeful that someone from within the military, high ranking, will come out and speak loudly on this issue and champion it and take it on, and that's sort of been disappointing to me. Where are the military leaders right now expressing outrage? It shouldn't be me and you all talking about it on every news show every other day. I want to see, you know, military leadership stepping up along with Senator Gillibrand and saying, look, this is a problem, it needs to be addressed and we can address it and we want to. I mean, where is that?

MARTIN: Anu Bhagwati, a final thought from you? You're the executive director of the Service Women's Action Network. Presumably you are still in touch with many women in the service, as well as retirees like yourself. Do you - what's your sense of it? Do you think something's going to change?

BHAGWATI: Well, I think we've reached a tipping point in terms of national attention to this issue. Much of that is due to the media attention and congressional attention and "The Invisible War" being broadcast to millions of people who had no idea that this was going on. But I would add to what Amy said by saying the commander-in-chief needs to be the leader here. It's the Joint Chiefs and the commander-in-chief who need to pressure both sides of the aisle. This should be a nonpartisan issue. This should be a non-gendered issue. This is about all of our men and all of our women being safe to serve when they volunteer to serve in uniform. Period.

ZIERING: And if I can jump in and say...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, Amy. We don't have time. I'm sorry. Forgive me.

ZIERING: Oh, sorry.

MARTIN: This is the final word. That had to be the final word. Anu Bhagwati is the executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, or SWAN. She is a retired Marine officer and she was with us from our bureau in New York. Amy Ziering is one of the producers behind the Oscar-nominated documentary, "The Invisible War," which is about this issue. She joined us from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. Here in Washington, D.C., Bridget Johnson, Washington, D.C. editor for P.J. Media, a conservative libertarian commentary and news website. She's also covered the Pentagon for many years.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

JOHNSON: Thanks, Michel.

BHAGWATI: Thank you.

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