Editor's note: Democratic U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier represents the 12th District of California. She is also the honorary chair of Protect Our Defenders, an organization that supports women and men in uniform who have been raped or sexually assaulted by fellow service members. Those who wish to share their stories can do so at Protect Our Defenders. Watch Rep. Speier talk about the issue with Carol Costello on CNN Newsroom on Thursday in the 9 a.m. hour.
(CNN) -- If you serve in the U.S. military and you rape or sexually assault a fellow service member, chances are you won't be punished. In fact, you have an estimated 86.5% chance of keeping your crime a secret and a 92% chance of avoiding a court-martial.
These disturbing statistics illustrate an ongoing epidemic of rape and sexual assault in the military that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta believes amounted to 19,000 incidents just in 2010. A culture of acceptance combined with few prosecutions against assailants and the conflicted chain of command structure discourages victims from reporting crimes.
Service members who report being sexually assaulted by a commanding officer or military colleague do so at their own peril. They face ridicule, demotion, investigation that includes a review of their sexual history and even involuntary discharge.
In 2006, when Marine Lt. Elle Helmer reported to her commander that a superior officer assaulted and raped her the night before, her colonel discouraged her from obtaining a rape kit. In spite of his objections, she sought a thorough medical investigation.
Helmer appealed to her rapist's supervisor, who still refused to press charges or significantly punish the assailant. He said, "You're from Colorado -- you're tough. You need to pick yourself up and dust yourself off. ... I can't babysit you all of the time."
Instead of Helmer's attacker being prosecuted, she became the subject of investigation and prosecution. She was ultimately forced to leave the Marine Corps. Her rapist remains a Marine in good standing.
Elle's story is featured in the documentary "The Invisible War," which will be screened in five major cities for a week, starting Friday.
The powerful film includes interviews with former U.S. service men and women who were raped by co-workers or superior officers. The survivors explain that they felt the greatest betrayal was from the military itself and the conflicted chain of command structure that did not protect them from avoidable harm or support their need for justice.
Victim testimony from a widespread and ongoing sex scandal at Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas, sheds light on another tragic component of the epidemic: Service members are trained to follow the orders of all superior officers, no matter what.
Two of the women who have come forward were called over an intercom shortly after they graduated from basic training and asked to leave their dorm to meet their instructors, an unusual order. The victims told a military court that they were lured to a dark supply room where two instructors engaged them in sexual acts.
"I didn't know what to think or what to do," one woman, an airman first class, said when a prosecutor asked what she was thinking as her training instructor performed oral sex on her.
"I was frozen," she said. Thirty-five instructors have been removed from their jobs during the past year at Lackland, but the military refuses to disclose how many are accused of sexual assault. We know that four military training instructors have already been charged with sexual misconduct with at least 24 trainees. One of the instructors is charged with having sexual contact with 10 women, including sodomy and rape.
Another, Staff Sgt. Peter Vega-Maldonado, admitted in a plea bargain to having sex with one woman. His punishment is 90 days in jail, 30 days of hard labor, reduction in rank and forfeiture of $500 a month in pay for four months. He will be forced to leave the Air Force but without a bad-conduct discharge.
After striking this deal with prosecutors, Vega testified that he actually had improper contact with 10 trainees. He is not immune to further prosecution, but his admission of guilt cannot be used against him in future procedures. Each victim will have to come forward, and the prosecution will have to start from scratch.
I have called for a congressional hearing to investigate the systemic abuse of power at Lackland Air Force Base.
It is clear that the inherent conflicts within the chain of command structure are at the core of the epidemic of military rape and sexual assault.
Last fall, I introduced bipartisan legislation that would create a path to justice for service men and women who are victims of rape or sexual assault. H.R. 3435, the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act (STOP Act), has 125 co-sponsors. It would take these cases out of the normal chain of command and place the jurisdiction, still within the military, in the hands of an impartial office staffed by experts -- both military and civilian.
Right now, it is far too easy for a sexual predator in the military to rape or sexually assault a fellow service member and get away with it. Until these crimes are taken seriously and assailants are punished as the felons they are, the epidemic will continue.
We should not have to hear another story like Elle Helmer's, watch another movie like "The Invisible War," and have to investigate yet another scandal like the one at Lackland Air Force Base.
In the words of Defense Secretary Panetta, "One assault is one too many."
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jackie Speier.