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Female Vets and the ACLU Call On Dept. of Defense for Transparency Around Military Sexual Trauma

Female Vets and the ACLU Call On Dept. of Defense for Transparency Around Military Sexual Trauma

Women in the military, who often remain out of the spotlight, could soon get more visibility. And, that attention could come at the embarrassment of the Defense Department. Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), an advocacy organization for women in the military, recently teamed up with the ACLU to fight for greater transparency and action for victims of Military Sexual Trauma (MST.) An estimated 1 in 3 women experience sexual assault during their enlistment and that 6-23% of female servicemembers are the victim of rape or attempted rape. Additionally, those studies reveal that 14% of military rape victims are the victims of gang rape.

Women in the military, who often remain out of the spotlight, could soon get more visibility. And, that attention could come at the embarrassment of the Defense Department. Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), an advocacy organization for women in the military, recently teamed up with the ACLU to fight for greater transparency and action for victims of Military Sexual Trauma (MST.)

SWAN initially filed requests for this information from each of the military branches. Those requests were either denied outright or ignored by those branches. It is SWAN’s assertion that the DOD has wrongfully withheld those records.  

SWAN and the ACLU filed suit in US District Court in New Haven, Connecticut against the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Veteran's Affairs (VA) for records the government has withheld about MST. Anuradha Bhagwati, Executive Director of SWAN, says, “We want to know how many claims are accepted or rejected and have those claims broken down by race and gender.”

SWAN and the ACLU are seeking greater oversight with assault reporting, greater enforcement, greater funding for MST victim treatment, and improved ways for victims to report MST anonymously and without fear of retribution or isolation. It is the belief of SWAN and the ACLU that by making the embarrassing military records about MST public these goals can be achieved.

SWAN has also been key in pointing out the treatment, or lack of treatment, for MST survivors by the VA. While great strides have been made in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) treatment for combat veterans, the same cannot be said for the victims of MST. SWAN points out that veterans who file MST claims consistently have their claims denied by failing to prove an “initial stressor” despite the fact that requirements for proving initial stressors were recently relaxed for combat veterans.

In accordance with the Freedom of Information Act, the DOD and VA have been asked to make public their records concerning the instance rates of MST and the action taken for those reported instances. While the full scope of MST is still not known, the available data is shocking. Recent survey’s have shown that instances of sexual assault and rape are double that of the civilian population. An estimated 1 in 3 women experience sexual assault during their enlistment and that 6-23% of female servicemembers are the victim of rape or attempted rape. Additionally, those studies reveal that 14% of military rape victims are the victims of gang rape.

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The DOD’s reporting agency, the Sexual Assault Prevention And Response Office (SAPRO,) reported 3,200 MSTs last year. A number the DOD itself believes to be 20% of the actual total. While SAPRO has been generating biannual reports on sexual assaults since 2005, the organization has little power to assist. SWAN’s lawsuit asserts that in 2006 only $13 million was budgeted for MST related care when the estimated cost for the instances reported would have been $20 million.

But reporting isn’t the only problem for which SWAN and the ACLU demand accountability. Only 8% of reported MSTs are prosecuted in the military compared to the 40% of reports that are prosecuted in the civilian world. “What happens to the other 92%?” Bhagwati asks. “It is those 92% of incidents that SWAN wants access to.” Bhagwati also points out the disparity in the punishments doled out by the military sighting instances where perpetrators of gang rape were only subjected to NJP (Non-Judicial Punishment,) a form of military punishment where the strongest penalties are fines and loss of rank.

The DOD has defended itself against these claims by pointing out a 73% increase in reporting of sexual assault (from 2004 to 2006.) Bhagwati fails to see this as a sign that things are getting better. “I don’t see how more rape is their proof that things are improving.”

While it is unclear how successful the lawsuit will be, when asked if the lawsuit itself will help shed light on this dark secret of the military Bhagwati answered confidently, “Absolutely.”

SAPRO is due to release the second of its biannual reports (this one pertaining to MST in the service academies) on December 15th.
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