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military sexual assault

Military Sexual Assault is a National Security Issue

Can we talk about this now?

Words: Rob Levinson
Pictures: Luis Galvez

On Wednesday, March 6, the junior senator from Arizona, Martha McSally, revealed that while on active duty she had been raped by a superior officer. Sadly, Senator McSally’s experience is far from unique and not even unique for a United States Senator. Earlier this year Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, another military combat veteran, revealed that she too was raped, though in her case it occurred in college, not while she was on active duty.

While all rapes, whether in the military or out, are horrific crimes and should be punished to the full extent of the law, what should especially concern those charged with the nation’s security in uniform is what Senator McSally said about why she didn’t report it. “I didn’t report being sexually assaulted. Like so many women and men, I didn’t trust the system at the time. I blamed myself. I was ashamed and confused. I thought I was strong but felt powerless. The perpetrators abused their position of power in profound ways. In one case I was preyed upon and raped by a superior officer.”

As she rose in rank she sadly watched her fears over the system’s inadequacies borne out. “I stayed silent for many years, but later in my career, as the military grappled with the scandals, and their wholly inadequate responses, I felt the need to let some people know I, too, was a survivor. I was horrified at how my attempt to share generally my experiences was handled. I almost separated from the Air Force at 18 years of service over my despair. Like many victims, I felt like the system was raping me all over again.”

Take a moment to digest her words. A woman who had committed to her nation’s service since she was 18 years old, who had the guts to take on the Secretary of Defense in court, who had broken barriers as the first female fighter pilot to fly a combat mission, had lost faith in the service that was her home.

Take a moment to digest her words. A woman who had committed to her nation’s service since she was 18 years old, who had the guts to take on the Secretary of Defense in court, who had broken barriers as the first female fighter pilot to fly a combat mission, had lost faith in the service that was her home. If Colonel McSally, and by extension other women and men in uniform can’t trust their service and their leaders to deal with terrible crimes, how can they trust them to deal with anything else? And if trust breaks down in the service, how can it possibly function well?


In the debates about the role of women in combat, or the participation of LGBT personnel in military service, or even harkening back to the debate over racially desegregating the military, the notion of unit cohesion, and the impact any change in policy might have on it, has always come up. While thankfully and demonstrably those fears were unfounded in each case, the concern is a recognition that at its core, in its most basic form, war is a human endeavor that pits teams of people against one another trying to end their enemy’s life and preserve their own. To do this always terrible thing well, a special bond between warriors is required. Unit cohesion is probably an inadequate term to describe something that encompasses love, respect, faith, compassion, friendship and so much else — but perhaps most importantly, trust. Trust that your buddy has your back. Trust that your commander knows what they are doing. Trust that your subordinates will do what you tell them to do. Trust that if you are asked to take another’s life or relinquish your own, it is for a worthy purpose that warrants such a sacrifice. Absent that trust, warriors become a mob with everyone out for themselves, capable of much wanton destruction, but unlikely to achieve any military objective. Trust is that intangible yet vital ingredient that is the lifeblood of any unit in combat. If it is broken, all may be lost.

Colonel McSally, a then combat leader, lost trust in the Air Force. From her words in her testimony, Senator McSally hasn’t yet gotten it back. We know it’s not just broken for her, but for so many others. Too many Americans in uniform don’t trust their service. That is indeed a sad commentary but it is also very dangerous. We must find a way to restore it.


Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the junior senator from New York and a candidate for president of the United States, has proposed taking the decisions about whether or not to prosecute sexual assault cases out of the hands of the chain of command as other crimes are treated under military law. In her view, and the views of many others, the chain of command is often part of the problem. Others, including Senator McSally, believe that the chain of command must remain part of the process. In McSally’s words, “I very strongly believe that the commander must not be removed from the decision-making responsibility of preventing, detecting, and prosecuting military sexual assault.”

As a retired military officer, and a former commander myself, I am torn between these two approaches. I commanded a small, all male unit in South Korea in the early 2000s. I felt it important that I be empowered to handle any issues regarding my men and potential violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. But I also know that I had no training whatsoever in dealing with sexual assault. I didn’t know how such crimes were defined, what the law said, how such things should be investigated, or what my responsibilities to both the victim and the accused were. Had a case come up, which thankfully it never did during my tenure, I have little confidence that I would have known how to handle it well. I would have relied on the advice of the JAG and hoped that I could get it right. But the decisions would have been mine and I’m not sure either a victim or an accused would have placed much confidence in them.

Are commanders today better trained than I was? I hope so, but the ongoing problem and the concerns of both Gillibrand and McSally suggest that training of commanders is far from adequate, and that perhaps, training alone can’t solve this problem. I won’t endorse either McSally’s or Gillibrand’s position, or even the idea that these are the only two options on the table, but what I will endorse is the undisputed observation that what we are doing isn’t working and that the status quo is not acceptable. If we do continue to leave it up to the chain of command we must at the very least ensure that commanders are well trained and prepared to deal with sexual assault and held accountable. Every report must be documented and commanders must know that their evaluations and their careers will be affected if the rules aren’t followed and the law isn’t obeyed. Commanders have a responsibility to follow the regulations but they also define the culture of their units by their words and actions. A commander who looks the other way or doesn’t promote a climate of respect needs to stop being a commander. The Department of Defense’s Inspector General recently determined that the department is not even following the law requiring victims to be consulted about their preference for the prosecution of perpetrators in civilian or military courts. The new sexual assault task force the Pentagon is standing up at McSally’s urging is a good first step but follow through will be what counts.

As women are fully integrated into all combat units in the military, it is vital to both our women and our men in uniform that we do everything we can to fix this problem. We’ll never eliminate sexual assault from the military altogether. Some bad people will always do bad things. But we can do a lot more to prevent them coming in, to catch them when they commit a crime, and to punish them severely when they harm a comrade in arms. Only by doing all of these things consistently will we be able to accomplish the absolutely critical task of restoring trust in the system. It’s not just the right thing to do, and, our responsibility that all who serve can be at their best, and it is indeed those things. But if this problem is left unchecked it could lead to lives lost and defeat on the battlefield. And that is a national security issue.

Rob Levinson is a retired Lt. Col in the US Air Force with over 20 years of service as an intelligence officer. He is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and served in Latin America, the Middle East and South Korea as an intelligence officer, foreign area officer, commander and politico-military affairs officer.

Rob Levinson

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