Close Video

Current Events

Military shame: Estimated 19,000 rapes a year; Congress must act

It is a shocking culture of silence and code of conduct that has been going on for decades, but the staggering numbers have only begun to surface in recent months.

Trina McDonald joined the US Navy as a young recruit in 1989. She was assigned to a remote duty station in Adak, Alaska. She was first raped two months later and the incidents continued. McDonald couldn’t report the rapes, because they were conducted by military and security police and higher ranking officers.

Shockingly, McDonald’s story is not unusual. The Department of Defense estimates that “19,000 service men and women are sexually assaulted while serving in the United States military every year.” But due to the military hierarchy and fear for personal safety, retaliation, job security and advancement, approximately 86 percent are unreported.

In March, members of the House Armed Services heard testimony from victims to address the growing problem. Three military personnel testified about their ordeals, including the first-ever male victim to come forward, Brian Lewis, a former Navy petty officer, raped in 2000 by a “senior non-commissioned officer.”

“The epidemic has not been successfully addressed in decades of review and reform by the Department of Defense or by Congress,” said Lewis, as quoted in US News. “(There is) inherent bias and conflict of interest present in a broken military justice system. The reporting, investigation, prosecution and adjudication of sexual assault must be taken out of the chain of command and (placed) into an independent office with professional, military and civilian oversight. (The current system) … is another way that the Department of Defense fails us.”

The primary problem, according to testimony, is that commanders who ignore reports of sexual assault are never held accountable for doing nothing, which accounts for the low percentage of actual prosecutions that result in “one out of 100 alleged perpetrators” actually getting charged or facing any accountability.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) was appalled at what she heard at the hearing.

“We need to take a close look at the military justice system and we need to be asking the hard questions with all options on the table, including moving this issue outside of the chain of command so that we can get closer to a zero tolerance policy,” said Gillibrand.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn) was concerned about the potential harm that it would cause for armed forces to recruit and retain personnel, especially women, when their chances of becoming a victim of sexual assault with little recourse is so prevalent.

Men and women voluntarily sign up to serve their country and shouldn’t have to face such blatant personal insecurity and injustice. Blumenthal and others have a right to be concerned about the military having potentially more sexual predators than the Catholic Church if they want voluntary enlistments to continue.

To that end, Trina McDonald recently started a petition to help move along the glacial actions in Congress.

The petition reads:

Only the U.S. Congress can amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The U.S. Senate must act swiftly to move the decision to prosecute sexual assault in the military out of the chain of command. Survivors should not suffer retribution for speaking up, and rape should never be an "occupational hazard." Only Congress can change the UCMJ to create a real, working system for prosecuting sexual predators in the military—and ultimately putting an end to military sexual assault.