- Anuradha Bhagwati
executive director and co-founder of Service Women’s Action Network, or SWAN. A former captain and company commander, she served as a Marine officer from 1999-2004. Bhagwati testified in March at the first Senate hearing on military sexual violence in nearly 10 years.
A shocking new report by the Pentagon has found that 70 sexual assaults may be taking place within the U.S. military every day. The report estimates there were 26,000 sex crimes committed in 2012, a jump of 37 percent since 2010. Most of the incidents were never reported. The findings were released two days after the head of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention unit, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, was arrested for sexual assault. We air highlights from Tuesday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on military sexual assault and speak with Anu Bhagwati, executive director and co-founder of Service Women’s Action Network. “The numbers are outrageous, and I think we’ve reached a tipping point,” Bhagwati says. “The American public is furious.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: A shocking new report by the Pentagon has found that 70 sexual assaults may be taking place within the U.S. military every day. The report estimated there were 26,000 sex crimes committed in 2012, a jump of 37 percent since 2010. Most of the incidents were never reported.
The Pentagon study was published just two days after the head of the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office was arrested for sexual assault for allegedly groping a woman in a Virginia parking lot on Sunday. The Air Force has removed Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Krusinski from his post.
At a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York questioned Air Force Secretary Michael Donley about sexual assault in the military.
SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: Fiscal year 2011 had 19,000 cases of sexual assault and rape, 3,192 reported, 190 convictions. The fiscal year 2012 report has come up with higher numbers: 26,000 cases and barely more reported, 3,374. Obviously, this is not good order and discipline. So are you saying that every commander in the chain of command is failing in our military today?
MICHAEL DONLEY: No, I’m not. And I would say that the—that the changes in the numbers that we’re seeing is a matter of some debate, and we’re not really sure whether the numbers of increasing reporting reflect a higher incidence or they reflect more confidence in the system, so we’re getting more reporting of incidents that had already been taking place in this—
SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: Secretary Donley, take the lower number. Let’s not even take the supposed cases of 19,000. Let’s just stick with the 3,000 reported cases. If that’s too high for you, let’s stick with the 190 convictions from last year.
MICHAEL DONLEY: The numbers are too high. We agree with you on that. The issue is—that you’ve asked about, is whether or not commanders ought to be involved in this work. And I guess, in my judgment—and I’ll, you know, defer to the chief to chime in here—commanders need to be part of the good order and discipline for their units.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Air Force Secretary Michael Donley.
In a moment, we’ll be joined by Anu Bhagwati, executive director and co-founder of Service Women’s Action Network, or SWAN. A former captain and company commander, she served as a Marine officer from 1999 to 2004. But first we’re going to play part of Anu Bhagwati’s powerful testimony in March at the first Senate hearing on military sexual violence in nearly 10 years.
ANURADHA BHAGWATI: Military sexual violence is a very personal issue for me. During my five years as a Marine officer, I experienced daily discrimination and sexual harassment. I was exposed to a culture rife with sexism, rape jokes, pornography and widespread commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls, both in the United States and overseas.
My experiences came to a head while I was stationed at the School of Infantry at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, from 2002 to 2004, where I witnessed reports of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment swept under the rug by a handful of field-grade officers. Perpetrators were promoted or transferred to other units without punishment, while victims were accused of lying or exaggerating their claims in order to ruin men’s reputations.
As a company commander at the School of Infantry, I ultimately chose to sacrifice my own career to file an equal opportunity investigation against an offending officer. I was given a gag order by my commanding officer, got a military protection order against the officer in question, lived in fear of retaliation and violence from both the offender and my own chain of command, and then watched in horror as the offender was not only promoted but also given command of my company.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Anu Bhagwati testifying earlier this year at a Senate hearing on sexual violence in the military, executive director and co-founder of Service Women’s Action Network, joining us now.
Anu Bhagwati, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you back. Talk about the significance of this Pentagon finding. Seventy assaults every day in the military?
ANURADHA BHAGWATI: The numbers are outrageous, and I think we’ve reached a tipping point, finally, where we can no longer say this is an issue of zero tolerance, that the military cares, the military has time to figure it out. The American public is furious. Congressmembers are finally furious and really, really showing their outrage at military leadership. Twenty-six thousand, I mean, it’s an increase of almost 40 percent. And the significance of that number is that those were not officially reported sexual assaults. That was conducted in a gender relations survey, which was anonymous, and therefore there’s a certain degree of perceived safety in actually revealing that you were sexually assaulted. But the actual reports, the official reports, that are marked by a separate report altogether, are far fewer. And so, we can still tell that there’s a sense of fear of retaliation, of intimidation, that occurs when people actually come forward. And victims see that those few cases that are tried oftentimes don’t end in a conviction or a significant sentence. And so there’s, throughout the process—
AMY GOODMAN: How many convictions are we talking about?
ANURADHA BHAGWATI: We’ve just gotten the report, and so we’re working through a couple thousand pages right now, so…
NERMEEN SHAIKH: What do you think accounts for the rise, almost 40 percent, you said? Is it because more were reported or more occurred, or a combination?
ANURADHA BHAGWATI: I think, honestly, it has to do with this groundswell of support from the outside, from outside of the military, from congressional leadership over the last year or two, the groundswell of media attention on this issue. The military can’t hide this issue anymore, and therefore victims inside the military feel a little bit safer that there’s a community out there that is going to support them and that finally believes them. I mean, this has been happening for decades. But finally there’s a sense that, “OK, I’m not alone. People believe me. They say I’m a liar, but I’m not. People believe me out there.”
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Tuesday’s Senate hearing, particularly the comments of U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh. He dismissed senators who suggested sexual assault cases should be handled by trained prosecutors rather than by commanders, who have overturned verdicts in the past.
GEN. MARK WELSH III: In the last three years, there has been one sexual contact case, one case out of 2,511 court cases, where a commander decided not to prefer it to court, when a lawyer, well trained, educated in the law, said he shouldn’t. One case. We do not have commanders routinely overturning sexual assault convictions. There are two in the Department of Defense in the last five years that we can find. This does not happen all the time. The facts are critical as we try and figure out how we move forward to solve the problem.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Anu Bhagwati?
ANURADHA BHAGWATI: There’s really been this obsession with the few cases in which commanding officers have overturned sexual assault convictions or convictions. And that’s important, but really there’s a front-end bias, as well, where the majority of that bias happens, where commanding officers—they’re called convening authorities—they have authority from beginning to end of a trial. They determine whether or not a case even goes forward, whether or not the accused even sees the inside of a court-martial. That’s where a lot of the intimidation happens. That’s where a lot of victims feel the fear. They’re not supported. They don’t follow through with their cases. And, you know, even before that, in terms of the investigation, your commanding officers oversee that, as well. And so, it’s front end, it’s the trial process itself, and it’s the back-end bias. And so, commanding officers don’t need to be part of any part of that. In the civilian world, it’s attorneys and judges making those decisions, not your boss.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s an amazing story, this—at the general level, overturning. Looking at a piece in The Guardian: “Lawmakers and victims’ advocates have expressed anger at an attempt by a US air force general to justify overturning the sexual assault conviction of a star fighter pilot. … Lt General Craig Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force in Europe, describes accusations [that] he did not take sex crimes seriously as 'complete and utter nonsense.'” But he overturned a jury verdict. I believe the jury is chosen by the general, but even still, when they come up with a guilty verdict, the general overturns. And at this very moment, in the piece in The Washington Post, Claire McCaskill is holding—blocking the nomination of Lieutenant General Susan Helms, who was a crew member of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, poised to make another ascent in her career, nominated to become vice commander of Air Force’s Space Command, but Senator McCaskill wants to examine her previously unpublicized decision to overturn the conviction on charges of aggravated sexual assault of a captain at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
ANURADHA BHAGWATI: And finally congressmembers are paying attention to the promotion process. There’s a sense of careerism that, certainly on the enlisted side, servicemembers see it every day, that officers are promoted without much thought at all to whether or not they’re taking care of their troops. And really, promotion standards should include whether or not sex crimes are prosecuted, whether or not victims are supported when they report sexual assault. And that’s not part of the process yet. And so I applaud Senator McCaskill for taking action. And every—every member of Congress, every military leader should take that into account when considering an officer for his or her next promotion.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Anu Bhagwati, you’ve also pointed out that members of the military do not have access to the civilian justice system. What are the implications of that? And is that something that your group is calling for?
ANURADHA BHAGWATI: Absolutely. Access to civil remedies is a key component of justice in any institution. If you’re a civilian victim in a civilian workplace, you have access to sue your employer, to sue your sexual predator. And workplace discrimination—you know, the cultural deterrent against workplace discrimination is found in civil courts, where a victim of sexual harassment, of bias in the workplace, can hold that perpetrator or employer accountable, and then the employer is often held liable for what happens in his or her workforce. That doesn’t exist in the military. Servicemembers have no access to these courts, and therefore you have a culture which is literally decades behind in the military than it is outside the military.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you testified at the Senate hearing in March. What was your sense of how it went, the people who testified, and what your expectations are coming out of that?
ANURADHA BHAGWATI: I mean, it was historic in the sense that you had a panel of veterans speaking about their personal experiences and a real sense by the senators that they were welcomed and that it was about time that these voices were heard. The flipside is that military leadership still does not understand this issue of command bias. There’s a sense of ego that you regularly see, that, you know, as an officer, you should have full power and control over everything that happens in your unit. Well, that’s a perfect world. I mean, we’re talking about human beings who happen to wear the military uniform, and we have to assume that some of those human beings coming into the military are just the same as they were before they came into the military, that they are sexual predators. There’s a pipeline into the military right now. We have to stop it with serious criminal justice reform.
AMY GOODMAN: During Tuesday’s hearing, Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York pressed military leaders to explain why unit commanders should have the power to handle the prosecution and investigation of sexual assault cases. Let’s go to an exchange between Gillibrand and the U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh.
SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: Because it’s in the chain of command, because this is what our witnesses have told us, people aren’t reporting. They don’t feel that there is a atmosphere by which they can report safely. They’re afraid of retaliation. They’re afraid of being treated poorly by their commanders, being treated poorly by their colleagues. There isn’t a climate by which they can receive justice in this system. And that is why I want the decision not to be part of the chain of command, but be done entirely by trained professionals who may not have a bias or may not have a lens that is untrained.
GEN. MARK WELSH III: We did a survey recently in the Third Air Force in Europe. Seventy-nine percent of the respondents said that they would report sexual assault if it occurred to them. That ends up not being true once they become victims. We find that 16 percent of our victims report. So what changes when you become a victim? I think we all know. The things that cause people to not report are—primarily, are really not chain of command. It’s: “I don’t want my family to know. I don’t want my spouse to know, or my boyfriend or girlfriend to know. I’m embarrassed that I’m in this situation.” It’s the self-blame that comes with the crime that is overridingly, on surveys over the years, the reasons that most victims don’t report. I don’t think it’s any different in the military.
AMY GOODMAN: Anu Bhagwati, your response?
ANURADHA BHAGWATI: Yeah, I would—I respectfully disagree with General Welsh. I don’t think he understands the mindset of victims at all. There is a huge sense of intimidation and fear of the people in your chain of command. The entire system is hierarchical. From day one, when you are a private in basic training, you learn to obey the orders of your seniors, period. And for a four-star general to not understand that is not surprising, but, you know, at this point, we have to deal with the power dynamics in the system, that is entirely different in the military than it is in the civilian world.
AMY GOODMAN: During yesterday’s Senate hearing, Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri questioned U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh, again, about Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Krusinski, the Air Force officer who led the branch’s sexual assault prevention unit, who was arrested Sunday for committing sexual assault. McCaskill also asked Welsh who would choose Krusinski’s successor.
SEN. CLAIRE McCASKILL: Did you look at his file for any kind of problems related—I mean, clearly, the accusation is, is that he was drunk and sexually attacked a complete stranger in a parking lot. It is hard for me to believe that someone would be accused of that behavior by a complete stranger and not have anything in their file that would indicate a problem in that regard. Have you looked at his file and determined that his file was absolutely pristine?
GEN. MARK WELSH III: Senator, I looked at his officer record of performance, which is all I could access last night. I talked to his current supervisor. I haven’t talked to people who knew him or supervised him in the past. There is no indication in his professional record or performance or in his current workplace that there’s any type of a problem like this.
SEN. CLAIRE McCASKILL: And who selected him? Will those two people be responsible for selecting his replacement?
GEN. MARK WELSH III: Yes, ma’am, they probably will be.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri questioning U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh. And I do want to point out, seven of the 26 members—unprecedented number—of the Armed Services Committee are women, for the first time. They were the fiercest questioners yesterday. Anu?
ANURADHA BHAGWATI: Absolutely. Women in politics matter. I mean, if it were not for women on the Senate Armed Services Committee, we wouldn’t even be having these discussions—there’s no question. But, you know, again, there’s this focus on training, on the lieutenant colonel being part of the training cadre for the Air Force. The military cannot train its way out of this crisis. You cannot train your way out of sexual assault. Criminal justice reform is much more important than any element of training. Training is just one tiny piece of the puzzle. But we’re dealing with sex crimes. You can’t reform all criminals, right? And so, behavior change, in large part, is also due to the way criminals are treated and victims are cared for. And there’s very little attention being paid to that.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Anu Bhagwati, just very quickly, before we conclude, one of the prejudices against trying military rape or sexual assault, as you’ve pointed out, has to do with the fact that it’s considered a women’s issue. But you’ve pointed out, in fact, that the majority of cases reported, at least, are of—from men, male victims.
ANURADHA BHAGWATI: That’s right. Just over half the cases in the last report were male victims. And so, there’s a sense that, well, because you’re a woman, you’ll be sexually assaulted; because women are in the military, inevitably they’ll be sexually assaulted—which is completely false. And that rape mythology has to be addressed head-on, because still the vast majority of servicemembers are men. You know, men don’t perceive themselves as victims. Women are a little more acclimated. But we’ve got culture change in the military. If we have to—if we want to transform that, we have to address the ideas of gender and what it means to actually be a sexual predator, that these are crimes based on power and control, and that’s it. So, conversations have to get a very real within the military. The training and education is—it’s mandatory. It’s boring. It doesn’t get personal. And these are personal matters.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Anu Bhagwati, for joining us, executive director and co-founder of Service Women’s Action Network, or SWAN, former captain and company commander, served as a Marine officer from 1999 to 2004.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the celebrated Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano joins us in studio. Stay with us.