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Combating sexual assault in the military

May 9th, 2013
12:55 PM ET

By Samuel Burke, CNN

The sexual abuse of women serving in all branches of the U.S. military has soared to a new level of outrage.

In an alarming confirmation that women are risking sexual assault just to serve their country, a Pentagon survey released this week reports that it's happened to more than six percent of women on active duty last year – an increase from previous years.

The military has again been rocked this week after the Air Force officer in charge of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program was himself arrested and charged with sexual abuse. Now, both Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and President Barack Obama are weighing in, vowing to really enforce a zero-tolerance policy.

"I want them to hear directly from their commander in chief that I've got their back," President Obama said. "We're not going to tolerate this."

But only a fifth of all these cases ever get to trial. 

"The reality is that neither the president nor Secretary Hagel have stepped forward and supported changing the judicial system, changing the Uniform Code of Military Justice," litigator Susan Burke told CNN's Christiane Amanpour. Burke represents many of the military women who are trying to take their cases to court.

She wants to change how the cases are prosecuted because, she said, the current military judicial system allows the chain of command – the operational day-to-day warfighters – to interfere in judicial proceedings.

"Until that is done, we're going to continue this just dreadful cycle, where there are not prosecutions – there aren't convictions. And as a result, there's rampant underreporting."

Too often the colonels or lieutenant colonels above a major who's being investigated, influence the prosecutors and stop a case from moving forward, according to Burke.

They can even overturn a case after a jury has found someone guilty.

In January, Sargent Jennifer Smith told Amanpour how an Army personnel assaulted her in Iraq.

"He basically just grabbed me and threw me up against the wall," she explained. "I kind of didn't tell anyone. I just came back, went to work the next day like nothing happened and buried it."

Burke, the litigator, says it's irrational to report assault in the military.

"If you report, the documents put up by the military demonstrate that you have a 62 percent chance of being retaliated against," she said. "So your career is going to take a hit."

Burke hopes these cases might persuade members of Congress to recognize that the military has had two decades fix this, but there's still a culture of impunity.

"It's just more of the same. We have as a nation, we've got to look at each other and say, wait a minute, these are our soldiers. These are our troops. We owe them a fair and impartial justice system."

READ MORE: One woman's story of sexual assault while serving her country


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soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Danjuma Mabas

    This Issue is abusing women-Right to discharge their duty like their men counterpart in sarving their Mother-Land NOT only in U.S, but arround the World.
    From Jos Nigeria.

    May 9, 2013 at 5:37 pm | Reply
    • Rudof vs

      If they wish to do so, then they have to accept the risks; being fondled is just a minor inconvenience consider a possible action of the enemy; or do the ladies expect to be allowed to serve their country in a location in the rear far away from the opposing forces.

      May 10, 2013 at 11:01 am | Reply
  2. Rudof vs

    Women got no business In the military services; they should stay in the kitchen.

    May 10, 2013 at 10:51 am | Reply

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