Military sexual assault a growing concern

Stigma and harsh punishments deter victims from reporting assaults

When anyone signs up for the military, they do so with clear objectives – go to college, see the world – or an ideal: to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They go through the rigors of basic training and endure weeks to months of hell, forming a bond with their fellows and entering a sacred brotherhood.

This brotherhood, however, is exclusive. Moreover, the training and learned behavior in the military, combined with the peer pressure soldiers face, can foster a culture of violence and extreme conformity.

Often, the ones who suffer from this culture are female, as women serve in small numbers or even alone in a platoon of 60 or more. That opens them up to a wealth of dangers, including abuse, sexual harassment and sexual assault.

According to statistics in the 2012 documentary “The Invisible War,” directed by Kirby Dick, there were an estimated 22,800 violent sex crimes in 2011 (not including sexual harassment or sexual assault). Among all active duty personnel, 20 percent of them were sexually assaulted, and more than half of that percentage was women between ages 18 and 21. One percent of men – the equivalent of 20,000 individuals – were sexually assaulted in 2009.

Kimberly Vollmer, a senior criminal justice major and a member of Student Veterans of America, said these numbers are just what have been reported to authorities.

“In the criminal justice world, we call rape ‘the dark figure of crime’,” she said. “It’s the most underreported crime. In actuality, there are likely way more (incidents).”

I was so young, and I used to drink a lot. I was the ‘fun’ drunk, so it was fun to get me drunk. They thought we were dancing in the backyard, my arm around his shoulders, but in actuality I couldn’t walk. So they took that as, ‘Oh, she’s asking for it, she wants it,’ so they didn’t stop him.”

— Kimberly Vollmer, senior criminal justice major and Student Veterans of America member

The reason for this has largely been how the system is set up. Vollmer served in the Coast Guard for four years’ active duty in Indiana, California and Michigan. Now discharged, she is at the head of a support network for former and current soldiers who are survivors of sexual assault.

She knows firsthand how the system works – and how it works against those who have been assaulted. She was sexually harassed on two occasions and raped by a non-military friend of a fellow Guard member at a party when she was 18.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is when this happens to you, you have to work through your chain of command,” she said. “Most of the time, the offender is someone in the chain of command, and usually it’s the person you have to report to who did the crime. So that person is in charge of whether an investigation happens or not.”

Forty percent of assailants are ranking officers or commanders, and 33 percent of ranking commanders – those in charge of investigations – are friends of the assailant, according to Helen Benedict, author of “The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq.”

Military personnel are also bound to military law enforcement. If they go to civilian police, they will be redirected to military police. For Vollmer, the situation was different, as she would have had to go through civilian court, but the fact that she was drinking while underage at the party she was assaulted at made her reluctant to report. This speaks to a larger societal issue in which those on the outside looking in might see fit to blame the victim of an assault in any way possible.

Vollmer’s friends at the time knew that she did not want to hook up with the man who assaulted her, she said, but they failed to stop the assault from happening.

“I was so young, and I used to drink a lot,” she said. “I was the ‘fun’ drunk, so it was fun to get me drunk. They thought we were dancing in the backyard, my arm around his shoulders, but in actuality I couldn’t walk. So they took that as, ‘Oh, she’s asking for it, she wants it,’ so they didn’t stop him.”

As far as assault within the ranks goes, Benedict spoke to the effect of the military system on those who report in a presentation April 8 in Bulger West.

“Sixty-two percent of men and women who report sexual assault are punished, demoted, given worse details (tasks), or are humiliated with tasks,” she said.

Also, unlike in the civilian world, military personnel have to live, eat, train and breathe in the same space with their attackers 24/7, risking jail if they go AWOL.

Finally, there is a stigma attached to reporting sexual assault, especially in the case of women who report.

“This reputation happens, like ‘oh, she was asking for it, she wants attention, she’s crying wolf,’” Vollmer said. “You just feel alone; there’s nothing you can do.”

That, coupled with the feelings of betrayal survivors feel at being assaulted by their fellows (Vollmer described it as “like incest”), leads to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and even thoughts of suicide. As part of her support group, she has heard plenty of stories, almost all of which overlap, and has pledged to be a voice for those who cannot or do not wish to speak for themselves.

They even say in (“The Invisible War”), ‘Rape is an occupational hazard.’ I didn’t see that on my enlistment form. You would think it wouldn’t be like this, but it is.”

— Vollmer

“You’d think people serving our country to protect our Constitution, our freedoms and our rights would have the same rights as the people they’re defending, but they don’t,” Vollmer said.

Part of the problem is also a lack of training – Vollmer said it’s “just a few PowerPoint slides” – and the lack of teeth the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) has when it comes to dealing with the crime. Measures taken by SAPRO included promoting “the buddy system” and printing flyers stating, “Preventing sexual assault is everyone’s duty,” as documented in “The Invisible War.”

The culture is also something that poses a risk.

“I’m not saying every man in the military is like this, but the ones who are, they’re vocal about it,” Vollmer said, describing an incident in which she nearly got into a physical altercation with a Marine during her first military orientation on campus over his declaration of women being “good only for f***ing” when it came to the military.

“They even say in (“The Invisible War”), ‘Rape is an occupational hazard,’” she added. “I didn’t see that on my enlistment form. You would think it wouldn’t be like this, but it is.”

Though the cultural aspects will take longer to fix, legislators are attempting to take control out of the military’s hands when it comes to sexual assault. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the Military Justice Improvement Act in 2013 to address how it is handled through the military justice system and the chain of command. It would have diminished the conflict of interest in military sexual assault investigations, putting authority in civilian court instead.

After a yearlong campaign, the bill was blocked this March, and Gillibrand is currently regrouping to figure out what to do next.

Benedict was unhappy with the turn of events and said giving authority to civilians, rather than military officers, is the better step to fixing the problem.

“This has happened in other nations for years without a problem,” she said.

On a more local level, SVA is open to the cause of helping veteran survivors on campus cope, as well as contributing to the dialogue surrounding military sexual assault. It co-sponsored Benedict’s presentation, partnering with Take Back the Night, Student Life and Residence Life.

SVA adviser Daniel C. Velez, who is also the associate vice president for student success, said continuing to work with the women’s and gender studies department and Student Life could be a start.

“It’s important for SVA to get ahead of this,” he said. “(The presentation) definitely highlighted a need to focus specifically on this issue, especially considering the unique nature of being a victim of sexual assault in the military.”

As for Vollmer, although she graduates this semester, she will continue to write and speak on the issue. She is hopeful that things will change for the better.

“There’s times when (my assault) still bothers me, but I get more upset thinking about my friends,” she said, adding that she hopes to inspire other people to come forward.

“When you see someone who’s basically like you sharing their experiences, it’s kind of empowering, like ‘If they can do it, so can I.’”


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Twitter: @A_Rodriguez39