Servicewomen Get Short Shrift in Commander-in-Chief Forum

Martha Burk

Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton sparred separately on military matters with back-to-back appearances on NBC’s Commander-in-Chief Forum on Wednesday. Trump stuck with his usual empty bombast, assuring a meek Matt Lauer that he would fix things up just fine – while offering no concrete plans or budgets. Clinton had more substance, stating she would not put ground troops in Iraq or Syria, and stressing the steadiness and temperament needed for the job.

Lack of timely treatment of veterans in Veterans Affairs hospitals got a good deal of the attention from both candidates. But in all the discussion about PTSD and the need for mental health treatment, one group was all but ignored – female service members. They were barely mentioned, except when one questioner from the audience asked Donald Trump what he would do about sexual assault in the military.

Trump opened by doubling-down on an earlier tweet in which he blamed the high rate of sexual assault on letting women serve in the armed forces in the first place. Then he showed his usual half-grasp understanding of the problem by saying we need to “keep the court system within the military” but then admitting “nobody gets prosecuted.”

Sorry Donald, having the court system in the military is the reason so few cases get prosecuted.

The latest report by the Defense Department shows that 75 percent of the men and women in uniform who have been sexually assaulted lack the confidence in the military justice system to come forward and report the crimes committed against them. The data also show a climate where 76 percent of servicewomen and nearly half of servicemen still say sexual harassment is common or very common.

One of the biggest reasons the great majority of sexual assaults are not reported – or the victims instead of the perpetrators are punished – is the military chain of command. Victims must report crimes to those who oversee their careers, and commanders have final say over whether criminal charges are brought in military courts. That means all too often attackers get off with a slap on the wrist, or the “she wanted it” defense is accepted. Even if they’re convicted, the boss can overturn the jury verdict with the stroke of a pen.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) would put military prosecutors in charge instead of commanders. But the military, aided by their lap dogs on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is backing a weaker bill sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). That one would do away with the ability to overturn jury verdicts and would mandate dishonorable discharge or dismissal for those convicted, but otherwise keep the good ol’ boy chain of command in place for deciding who gets prosecuted in the first place.

Right now the brass is winning the argument. Gillibrand’s bill fell five votes short in 2014, 10 votes short in 2015, and didn’t even get a vote this year as an amendment to the Senate’s $602 billion national defense policy bill, which passed in June.

Most people would agree that how we treat those who serve is a measure of our character as a country. While women constitute 15.3 percent of active-duty personnel, they are 95 percent of reported sex crime victims. But when it comes to sexual assault, “military justice” is an oxymoron. And it’s clear that if the American people are foolish enough to put a moron in the White House, it’s going to stay that way.

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