There was emotional and disturbing testimony before a U.S Senate committee this week, as survivors of sexual assault in the armed forces described how the military's criminal justice system utterly failed to protect them or punish their attackers. One after another, female veterans and one man told stories of rape, assault and sexual harrasment.
Gulf War vet and former army specialist Bridget McCoy described what happened to her on her first tour of duty:
"I was raped, during military service and during my first assignment. That was 1988, I was 18 years old. It was two weeks before my 19th birthday."
McCoy testified that despite years of pleading for help, the military justice system did not work, saying: "Why did I have to go through so much before anyone would listen to me? Why did I have to be violated again, through the process of asking for help and seeking claim status?"
SCOTT SHAFER: One big problem is that military law allows commanders to unilaterally overturn guilty verdicts or reduce sentences handed down by military juries. In the House of Representitives, California congresswoman Jackie Speier, a Democrat from San Mateo, introduced legislation to change that. She joins us now from Washington D.C. Congresswoman Speier, first of all, we heard testimony from military officials saying that they have "zero tolerance" for all this. So what does that mean to you? What does that say?
JACKIE SPEIER: Well "zero tolerance" is what is said everytime that military brass are called up to the Hill after one travesty after another, after one scandal after another. They come up and say "We have zero tolerance for this, we will not tolerate this," and then they go back to business as usual. And the result is we have victims out there that feel loathe to come forward because they know what happens when they come forward. When they come forward, they get identified as having a personality disorder, an adjustment disorder, and before long they are honorably, but involuntarily discharged from the military.
So we have 19,000 rapes and sexual assaults a year, that's a Department of Defense statistic, only 13 percent report, and of those that report, very few of them go to court-martial, and even fewer, some 7 percent, actually have convictions. So to have a case actually go to court-martial, to have a general hand pick the jury, have the jury convict the assailant, demote him, and require him to be discharged from the military after one year of sentencing in jail. To have this general then turn around and dismiss the case as if it didn't happen is absolutely unbelievable. And what's most troubling about this is that the commander -in-chief, the president of the United States, the secretary of defense has no ability to change the decision of someone who is not elected, who has that kind of extraordinary power. And so the Uniform Code of Military Justice has got to be amended.
SHAFER: Let me just come back to this point about the authority of the president and the secretary of defense. President Obama, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, now Mr. Hagel, former Senator Hagel, they may not have the power but they certainly have the bully pulpit and they can call people into their office and demand change. Has that not happened over the last four years plus?
SPEIER: You have a lot of superstructure that exists within the military that will be there after the secretary of defense leaves, and they just slo-mo everything. Or they do happy talk. So we create special victims units and we'll finally give the victim representation, but then they never enforce any of the laws or amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act that we put on the books. So it is an issue that requires us to take action now. We've got twenty percent of new recruits are women, with women now being able to serve in combat and then be promoted into very high positions because they are serving in combat; we have got to get this right.
SHAFER: One thing that suprised me is that this is not just women who are victims here, in fact more than half of the victims here are men.
SPEIER: That's correct. Well it's a higher percentage of women; there's fewer women in the military. So about ten thousand of those nineteen thousand victims each year are men, and it's not sexual, it's about power, it's about imposing one's power over another.
SHAFER: During the hearing, Senator Barbara Boxer raised a troubling Bay Area link to this problem, tragic problem that occured in Santa Cruz last month, two police officers being shot and killed by a guy named Jeremy Peter Goulet who had, as it turned out, rape charges against him dropped in 2006 when he was in the army. Congresswoman Speier, let me ask you, what is it going to take before this changes?
SPEIER: It's going to take the will of members to stay on this issue, because one of the big problems we have back here is when the lights are on and the camera's rolling, members say the right thing. But then the lights go off, the camera's stop rolling, and they go on to another issue. This issue has suffered from not having people stay on it to fix it.
SHAFER: Alright, Congresswoman Jackie Speier, thanks so much for talking to us.
SPEIER: My pleasure.