Why Stopping Rape in the Military Is a Tough Sell

Speier explains the challenges of dealing with sexual assault in the military.

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Reports show that the frequency of sexual assaults and rape in the military may be as high as twice the national average. In January, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the problem a top priority and announced initiatives to address it. But Rep. Jackie Speier says the efforts do not get to the core of the problem—the military's chain-of-command culture. The two-term Democrat from California has introduced legislation that would challenge that culture by creating an autonomous office to deal with sexual assault cases. Speier recently spoke with U.S. News about the challenges of dealing with sexual assault in the military, her STOP (Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention) Act, and why the bill is a "tough sell." Excerpts:

Why did you take on this issue?

When I came to Congress [in 2008] and sat in on my first subcommittee hearing on Oversight and Government Reform and this issue was being addressed, the comments coming from those within the military took me back to the '60s. [They were talking] about provocative attire, and making all the excuses for behavior that has clearly been established as a violent crime in the civilian world. I started reading the cases of the women and men who were raped and how their lives and their careers in the military disintegrated. And I said we've got to do something about this.

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What has been the Defense Department's response?

I sent a letter to then Secretary of Defense [Robert] Gates and never got a response. I sent a letter to Secretary Panetta upon his appointment and I got a call relatively soon, telling me that he wanted to meet with me.

What did Secretary Panetta tell you?

To his credit, he was not at all familiar with the epidemic that rape is in the military. He harkened back to his years as director of CIA and how there was a zero tolerance, and said he was going to take steps.

Has he?

He has developed some guidelines and moved the issue forward. There have been a number of nonprofits that have been created. Protect Our Defenders is one.

Does it affect the military as a whole?

It affects morale, it affects military readiness, and it affects cohesion. So, just on a military readiness standpoint, [it is necessary to] separate out the violation to a human being that goes on.

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Are women the main victims of sexual attacks?

It's important to note that while the majority of these rapes occur to women, the number of men who are raped is staggering as well. So it's not a women's issue, it's a military issue happening to service members. I think part of it is this structure in the military. This requirement that you report it to the chain of command.

Is there a pattern of retaliation?

If you report it, you are either told that you're a misfit or that you should take two aspirins and, you know, never say the word again. And if by any chance you want to pursue it, you become labeled. Some of the discharge papers I have seen of the victims of rape are so offensive. Labeling them as having a behavioral problem. One of them was told that she had a weight problem and was terminated. Boys will be boys. Get rid of the victim. And, you know, we've got a war to fight.

Why is your bill a tough sell?

This chain-of-command structure is so embedded in the military, that this would be a chink in the armor. This would somehow undermine the system.

What's your response to that?

Wait a minute, it's being done in Australia, it's being done in Canada, it's being done in the U.K. If it's being done there, why can't it be done here?