Skip to main content

Why rapists in military get away with it

By Jackie Speier, Special to CNN
updated 8:19 AM EDT, Thu June 21, 2012
Then-Rep. Christopher Shays comforts former U.S. Air Force Academy cadet Beth Davis after her 2006 testimony on sexual assault in the military.
Then-Rep. Christopher Shays comforts former U.S. Air Force Academy cadet Beth Davis after her 2006 testimony on sexual assault in the military.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jackie Speier: If you commit sexual assault in the military, you'll probably get away with it
  • Speier: Service members who report attack face ridicule, demotion, refusal to be heard
  • Sex assault scandal at Lackland base shows how trainees are preyed upon, she says
  • Speier wants sex assault cases tried in impartial military office to ensure justice

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.

Betrayal of Trust? Allegations of rape at West Point, Annapolis

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."

Rape victims say military labels them 'crazy'

Jackie Speier
Jackie Speier

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.

'Invisible War': Rapes in the military
Panetta: Rape 'not to be tolerated'

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.

Female service members sue U.S. military for alleged rape, sexual assault

"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.

Victims of military rape deserve justice

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."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jackie Speier.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT