Military Sexual Assault: Rising, But the DoD is Still Slowing Plans to Hire Sexual Assault Response Coordinators

BySarah Galo

All federal departments are currently experiencing cuts due to the sequestration, however none sound quite as grim, as the department of defense is slowing down plans for hiring 829 sexual assault response coordinators. In light of the recently released numbers from the DoD, which indicate a significant rise in sexual assault cases in the military, these cuts could not have come at a worst time.

While not a complete elimination of these positions, a quick search through, the federal employment listing website, indicates that very few of these position remain open. The sexual assault response coordinator or victim advocate positions that are currently listed are for military personnel only, leaving civilians out of the equation. The nature of sexual assault investigations in the military, which happens exclusively in their jurisdiction and chain of command, proves especially problematic. 

If an individual decides to report that she or he was sexually assaulted, this process must begin within the chain of command. As discussed in the recent documentary, Invisible War, this process in itself is discouraging, as the rapist may be a friend of the commander, or even the commander himself or herself. Even if this is not the case, commanding officers ultimately have the authority to pursue a case or even throw out the case completely.

Within the past year, two instances have been highlighted where a commanding officer decided to do the latter and dismiss charges of sexual assault against two men serving in the Air Force. However, the more recently reported case, of Lt. Gen. Susan J. Helms overturning the sexual assault conviction of Capt. Matthew S. Herrera, finely illustrates the military's hostility towards victims.

In a released memo justifying her decision, Lt. Gen. Helms wrote, "It is undoubtedly true that [the accuser’s] feelings of victimization are real and justifiable,” Helms wrote. “However, Capt. Herrera’s conviction should not rest on [the accuser’s] view of her victimization, but on the law and convincing evidence.” Here, Lt. Gen. Helms acknowledges that the victim was indeed "victimized." However, this is brushed aside, and one point of view, the rapist's, is exalted above the other. 

This case would seem to nicely support the recent assertion by the Washington Times' "False Reports Outpace Sexual Assaults in the Military." Of course, this author relies on the Pentagon's belief that there was an increase in "unfounded allegations" of sexual assault from 2009 to 2012. During this same time period, the author cites a 4% increase in reported sexual assaults, from 3,244 to 3,374. But what constitutes an "unfounded allegation"? How is this determined? By the chain of command to which the victim is reporting. 

After recently viewing Invisible War, I believe we have every reason to question the determination of "unfounded allegations" and the belief that while a victim may be "victimized" her story is not as credible. As 26,000 service members have anonymously reported being sexually assault in 2012, we have the moral imperative to question why this number is so high, and why it even exists at all. As three cases of military personnel, who have been leaders in sexual assault prevention, have been charged with sexual battery, to name one, we need to actively discuss and advocate for change.

Clearly, the decision to postpone hiring 829 sexual assault response coordinators is detrimental to those who serve in our armed forces. As these positions can be open to civilians, it could help to bring change into the reporting process. While the reporting in accordance with one's change of command is being fiercely advocated for in Congress, perhaps these coordinators would be able to bring fresh ideas and methods in assisting victims, technically being from outside the military.