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Fighting Sexual Assault Seen As Military Betrayal


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we have some dramatic stories about retirement. One, somebody who retired young, and I mean really young. And another about how even the best planned retirement can go wrong when life happens. We hope you'll find something useful in each of those conversations, which is in just a few minutes.

But first, we are taking a new look at a difficult topic that has bedeviled this country's military and civilian leaders. That topic is sexual assault in the military. And this might be a good place to tell you that this conversation might not be for every listener. The issue is in the news again because Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has pledged to investigate a case where a sexual assault conviction against an Air Force officer was thrown out by his commander.

But that's just one of the cases that will be reviewed today on Capitol Hill as members of the Senate Armed Services Committee meet to talk about how the military addresses sexual violence and harassment, which is also being discussed as more military jobs, including infantry positions, are opened to women. In advance of today's hearing, we caught up with reporter Jennifer Hlad.

She's been covering this story for Stars and Stripes. That's an independent newspaper which focuses on military affairs. Also with us once again is Anu Bhagwati. She is a former Marine officer and she is the executive director and co-founder of SWAN, the Service Women's Action Network, and she is scheduled to testify at today's hearing. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.


ANU BHAGWATI: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Jennifer, let's start with you. This hearing is the first time that the Senate has formally addressed sexual assault in the military in the last almost 10 years. Why is this coming up now?

HLAD: Well, I think it's a confluence of things. There was a documentary that came out last year called "The Invisible War" about military sexual assault. I think that really got people talking about it more than had been in the past. Also there was the scandal, you might call it, at Lackland where...

MARTIN: Lackland Air Force Base?

HLAD: Right. At Lackland Air Force Base. Dozens of the recruits were sexually assaulted by trainers there. And unfortunately, not very many of the trainers who have been involved have been sentenced yet and the ones that have, many of their sentences have been - they seem a little light, you might say. Now recently, there's this case in Italy where an Air Force lieutenant colonel was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to a year in jail.

And told that he was going to have to leave the Air Force. And then his commander overturned that and said, no, just kidding. You know, you can go back into the Air Force and you're not convicted anymore. So...

MARTIN: So he vacates the conviction and restores him and reassigns him.

HLAD: Right.

MARTIN: And there's been a lot of, what? How would you describe the reaction?

HLAD: Well, I think people are really, really upset about it. I mean, and Secretary Hagel has pledged now to look at this case and try to figure out what's going on there. He's reviewing the case. He's also reviewing the rule that allows the convening authority, which in this case is the general who overturned the case, even the authority to overturn such a case. So I think most people are pretty upset about it.

MARTIN: Congresswoman, combat veteran Tammy Duckworth recently finished a stint in the Department of Veterans Affairs, ran and won a seat in Congress, has been quoted as saying that this isn't a victim's problem, it's a predator problem. Anu, as a former Marine officer - I know you don't speak for Congresswoman Duckworth - but what is she talking about? Why does she say that?

BHAGWATI: Well, the perception is, and I would say the reality is also, that the military is not handling these cases well, that perpetrators are generally not prosecuted, not punished. There's very little reporting to begin with, and what often happens is victims are retaliated against when they do come forward. They're threatened. They're made to feel unsafe. In fact, they are unsafe in many cases. And they end up feeling the brunt of the punishment.

MARTIN: But is there something in particular about the process that makes complainants feel that justice is weighted against them?

BHAGWATI: Well, the criminal justice system in the military is very insulated. And it's also - it operates differently than it does in the civilian world. And so you actually have a system right now in which not only sex crimes, but crimes generally, are not adjudicated by the most professional people. And by that what I mean is that commanders are actually endowed with what Jennifer called convening authority to determine which cases go to trial.

And so, you know, while we generally are speaking for the victims of these crimes, we're not in a situation in which even the accused is necessarily receiving a fair and impartial trial. Because it's his officer in his own chain of command that is the convening authority. So at some point he either directly knows the accused or someone the accused is working for.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are talking about sexual assault in the military. Our guests are former Marine officer Anu Bhagwati. She is with the Service Women's Action Network. That's one of the advocates for women in the military. And also with us Jennifer Hlad. She's a reporter at the independent newspaper Stars and Stripes. It focuses on issues of importance to the military.

So, Jennifer, what about the reporting? Anu suggested that sexual assault is probably very much underreported in the military. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that there were more than 3,000 reported cases of sexual assault alone in the military in 2011, but from your reporting is there a sense that that number is accurate?

HLAD: Secretary Panetta had said that there were 3,192 reported in fiscal 2011 but he thought that there were closer to 19,000 actual...

MARTIN: Nineteen thousand?

HLAD: Yes. And that's...

MARTIN: What accounts for that big gap?

HLAD: I mean, there are a couple factors. What Anu was talking about is a big factor in the military, which is, if you are sexually assaulted and you are in the military, you have to report that to your boss. And then your boss decides whether you are telling the truth or the person you have accused is telling the truth. And so, I mean, there's just a lot of problems there, as you might imagine.

And then you have a lot of people who have said that they did report it, then they were retaliated against and people were harassing them. Everyone knew who it was who had reported it, even if they didn't want everyone to know, because it gets out.

MARTIN: Anu, you were talking to us about the fact that, you know, obviously sexual assault is an awful thing to experience wherever you are, whether you're in the military or whether you're in the civilian world. But you are suggesting that there is also an added emotional dimension. Can you sort of describe what you think that extra dimension might be?

BHAGWATI: Sure. Victims in the military experience trauma that's much closer to what incest victims experience.

MARTIN: How do we know this?

BHAGWATI: Well, psychiatrists and mental health providers speak about this quite well, but the point being that when you're attacked, harassed, abused, assaulted by someone who's also wearing the uniform, you know, that person is akin to your brother, your father, or your sister. And so the kind of relationship you have to the uniform, to your branch of service, to your nation, which is really what we're kind of indoctrinated to believe and to kind of grow up in when we're in the military, is completely shattered.

MARTIN: So that extra sense of betrayal.

HLAD: And victims often experience what we call a triple betrayal. First, they're betrayed by their perpetrator, you know, their brother-in-arms. Then they're often betrayed by their unit or their commander. So that the larger, you know, the larger military who doesn't believe them. And then the third betrayal often happens in the VA department, where a veteran who's experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment is filing that disability claim for post-traumatic stress related to assault or harassment in service, are flat-out denied.

MARTIN: Jennifer, we've been describing this as a particular issue for women, which are only about 11 percent, right, of active-duty military. But are they all women?

HLAD: No. They're not. The unrestricted reports, which are - the military makes a distinction. You can report it and have your name associated with it and try to go forward with charges. That's an unrestricted report. Twelve percent of the people who reported a sexual assault in that capacity were men. It's generally thought that there are tons more men who haven't reported because all of the things that stop women from reporting, the men have that. And then they maybe have an extra layer of: I'm this male warrior and therefore, I don't want to make my boss think that I'm not.

I was going to say, too, the other thing that maybe causes people - men and women - to not report it is, if they are in a certain situation when they are attacked that, maybe they're drinking underage, maybe they are off base when they're not supposed to be off base, something that they could get in trouble for, they may hesitate to report because they don't want to get in trouble for this other, you know, probably minor offense, but they don't want to be charged with that.

Or, sometimes, they can be charged with things. You know, I've heard of people being charged with adultery after they reported being raped. So there are just lots of reasons that you might not want to report it.

MARTIN: Anu, I'm going to ask you, since you are an advocate. You've been working on this for quite some time. In fact, this is one of the main reasons that your organization was founded. What are the recommendations that you are making and do you have any confidence that you are getting a hearing now, given all of these issues that are now before the public?

BHAGWATI: Well, we have two sweeping recommendations. The first involves the military criminal justice system as it exists and we want to professionalize the process for both victims and the accused; which is to say that commanders should have nothing to do with whether or not a case goes to trial and certainly should never be given the authority to, you know, reverse a conviction. Really, prosecutors are the folks who should be dealing with these issues, just trained lawyers, period.

The second sweeping recommendation that we are suggesting is that service members deserve and must have access to civil courts. The civilian justice system offers victims of workplace harassment and discrimination this very necessary form of redress so that you can actually take your employer to court and sue for damages. Military personnel - basically, that option is off-limits for them.

MARTIN: Jennifer, before we let you go, I wanted to give you the final word as a person who's reported on this as the new Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who just recently came back from his first overseas trip, a very dramatic one. Has he indicated that he believes this is an area that needs to change?

HLAD: He has. During his confirmation hearing, he was asked about it and he said that he wanted to make it an important issue that he would focus on and he - with the Lieutenant Colonel Wilkerson case, he had said that he was going to review it. I think that he's definitely looking into it, and he's not just looking into that case because, unfortunately, he actually can't do a lot about that case. But, as far as the authorities that are in place that allowed that situation to happen, he is looking at that.

I think that some people in Congress are hoping to maybe push that along a little bit more and maybe allow for more changes to take place, but he has said that this is something he's going to focus on, so that's a good sign, I think.

MARTIN: Jennifer Hlad is a reporter for Stars and Stripes. That's an independent newspaper that focuses on issues of particular interest to the military. Anu Bhagwati is a former Marine officer. Can I thank you again for your service?

BHAGWATI: Thank you.

MARTIN: And she's the executive director and cofounder of SWAN, the Service Women's Action Network. They were both kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

HLAD: Thank you.

BHAGWATI: Thank you.


MARTIN: Coming up, Stan Hinden spent years reporting on business and finance as a financial journalist, but none of that really prepared him for his own retirement, especially when his wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

STAN HINDEN: I don't feel cheated. I feel sad, and I feel more sad for Sara than for me. It's probably more difficult for her.

MARTIN: He shares advice from his journey in his new book, "How to Retire Happy." That's ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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