This year marks the 40th anniversary of Tailhook ‘91—one of the most high-profile military sexual assault scandals in U.S. history, when scores of U.S. Navy and Marine Corps officers sexually harassed and assaulted over 80 women at a naval aviators convention in Las Vegas. From the Tailhook scandal to the murder of Army Specialist Vanessa Guillén last year, rampant violence against women in the military has gone largely unaddressed, despite repeated promises by military leaders. But now, new legislation in Congress might finally force the military to change.
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2022—passed by the House last month and currently pending before the Senate—would fundamentally alter how the U.S. military handles sexual harassment and assault, taking these cases out of the chain of command and placing power to prosecute in the hands of independent decision-makers.
“This year’s House passage of the FY22 NDAA is a fundamental shift in our military culture—one of historic proportions. After a decade of fighting to remove cases of sexual assault and sexual harassment from the chain of command, and seeing hundreds of thousands of survivors further victimized and failed by the military justice system, we are finally taking this earth-shaking leap forward and making clear to all that sexual violence has no place in our fighting forces,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who co-sponsored over 45 major provisions adopted in the House-passed version of the annual defense policy bill. Speier is the chair of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel.
The action came after an Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military (IRC) on April 23 recommended taking decisions about whether to bring sexual assault charges out of commanders’ control and putting them in the hands of independent judge advocates. In June, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin made an historic statement calling for improvements in “accountability, prevention, climate and culture, and victim care and support.”
The number of sexual assaults reported in the military has risen steadily in recent years. In 2019, the Pentagon reported that 20,500 service members—13,000 women and 7,500 men—had experienced some form of sexual assault—a 38 percent jump from a similar survey conducted in 2016. The anonymous survey revealed that one-quarter of all women across the military experienced sexual harassment, with increases across all four branches of the military and highest in the Marine Corps. The majority of these assaults occurred at a military facility or onboard a ship. The report also showed a record low rate of conviction for sexual assault.
In addition to addressing sexual assault and harassment, Speier’s amendments to the NDAA provide other types of support for women in the military, including enforcement of military protective orders off base, paid parental leave, child care support and expanded health insurance coverage.
Ms. spoke with Rep. Speier about her amendments and her hopes for the legislation.
Carrie Baker: How will the NDAA impact the U.S. military?
Rep. Jackie Speier: It’s a seismic shift in how the military is going to be addressing sexual assault. The problem is that 20,000 service members are sexually assaulted a year, men and women, and only about 6000 will report. Of those who report, only about 500 will go into a courts martial, and of that, 250 will be convicted. Less than 1 percent actually serve time.
Baker: Why do so few get charged and convicted?
Speier: Part of the reason is because there is a gross conflict of interest that exists when you have to report it up the chain of command. The chain of command can be the perpetrator, best friends with the perpetrator, or be concerned that having rapes take place under their command and control will prevent them from getting a promotion. Commanders, who are trained to be battle ready but not to be legal experts, are making decision that have serious legal implications.
Baker: What has been the impact of this failure to prosecute?
Speier: In the 10 years that I’ve been working on this issue, it pains me to tell you that 200,000 service members have been sexually assaulted. It is incumbent on us to be as interested in their safety as their skills to fight the enemy. The message I’ve heard from more than one service member is, ‘I was prepared to serve my country and fight the enemy outside the wire. I never thought the enemy was going to be someone standing next to me and a fellow soldier.’
‘I was prepared to serve my country and fight the enemy outside the wire. I never thought the enemy was going to be someone standing next to me and a fellow soldier.’
Baker: Can you speak to what motivated you to include your provisions related to caregiving and healthcare?
Speier: Why is it service members do not get the same kind of parental leave that we provide our other federal employees? Why don’t we provide contraception with no co-pays, when the ACA [Affordable Care Act] already provides that? Childcare centers [on military bases] have been seriously neglected—there’s like 125 of them that are defined as poor or failing, and they are not making it a priority to replace them or repair them. And there’s a waiting list.
Families in the military today are not families of 10 years ago, or 20 years ago, when one spouse stayed at home with the kids. Typically, they’re both working, many of them in professional capacities. Childcare is really very important. We’re trying to kick the military into the 21st century.
We are also making clear that readiness means ensuring those who put their lives on the line in defense of our freedoms have the support and services they need and deserve. That includes providing parental leave and child care, as well as enhancing health care coverage and options.
Baker: What now? Do you think your provisions on women will survive the Senate?
Speier: The Senate will take up the bill, then both bills will go to conference, and we will iron out the differences there. As these provisions play out, I’m pretty confident all of them will stay in the bill.