Washington, DC (HRW) – When members of the US military report a sexual assault up their chain of command, they often experience terrible retaliation from other military personnel. But a bill introduced into the US Senate today could help stem this harmful practice.
For our 2015 report, Embattled, we interviewed 163 victims of military sexual assault, most of whom told us the aftermath was worse than the rape. After reporting their assaults, they explained they were subjected to physical and emotional abuse by peers and supervisors, poor performance reviews, bad work assignments, loss of medals, disciplinary action – even courts martial and ultimately involuntary discharge. Many told us that they had seen what happened to other survivors and were reluctant to come forward to report their assaults. In fact, fear of retaliation is one of the major reasons rape in the military is still grossly underreported.
Yet there is little those who lose military careers or experience retaliation after reporting a rape can do. The one legal avenue they have to protect their careers, the Military Whistleblower Protection Act, has – by the Department of Defense’s own calculation – never benefited a single rape survivor. This despite surveys indicating that over a third of those who report experience professional retaliation. Even worse, no one has been brought to justice for retaliating against a sexual assault victim. Commanders set the tone for their units, and when they turn a blind eye to retaliation they perpetuate the problem by signaling tacit approval.
Today’s bill, called the Military Retaliation Prevention Act and introduced by Senators Jodi Ernst and Claire McCaskill, offers a glimmer of hope. It will improve transparency about how retaliation complaints are addressed, criminalize retaliation, and improve training for those who investigate retaliation.
However, more needs to be done. First, the Military Whistleblower Protection Act needs to be strengthened to make the level of evidence military survivors of assault need to prove retaliation the same that’s required of civilians. And criminalizing retaliation alone will not result in meaningful change without the will to act. Commanders already have many tools to discipline those under their command – they simply choose not to use them against people who harass sexual assault victims.
Ultimately, the problem of sexual assault in the military cannot be resolved without both a commitment from leadership to change the culture, and an easier path for survivors of sexual assault and retaliation to seek justice.