Military Still Lags in Assisting Victims of Sexual Assault

PHOTO: After Jenny reported a military superiors repeated sexual assaults, her attacker briefly lost rank, which was restored by the end of deployment.Protect Our Defenders
After Jenny reported a military superior's repeated sexual assaults, her attacker briefly lost rank, which was restored by the end of deployment.

For Jenny McClendon, joining the Navy meant "being there for each other, struggling, pulling together, being a team."

Growing up with a father in the Marine Corps, she always expected to serve her country in some capacity, she said, but it was the Navy that really captivated her.

"The Navy seemed exciting," McClendon told "The idea of going out on the high seas, it was exhilarating."

But McClendon's ideals about serving her country were upended when she attended training camp in San Diego in 1997. Her class officer started to verbally harass her and other female cadets, she said, asking them "if their vaginas hurt," and calling McClendon "bitch" and "feminazi."

When McClendon reported the harassment to a higher-ranking officer, telling him, "This is not the Navy I signed up to serve in, this is not the America I signed up to serve," she said she was ostracized by her fellow service members.

Out at sea on a Navy ship, where McClendon said "you're pretty much trapped," she recalled how a petty officer 2nd class -- one rank above her -- would order others out of the room so that he could grope her. The groping escalated to rape.

Fearing ostracism or reprisals if she complained, McClendon started wearing multiple layers of clothing to evade further attacks. When she finally did report the rape to her senior chief, she said he told her, "To this command, you are a known feminist, lesbian and Democrat. You're going to prove that you're just trying to get this guy into trouble."

McClendon's ordeal happened 16 years ago, but it's just one in a list of military sexual-abuse scandals that goes back to the Navy's 1991 Tailhook Convention, where 100 officers sexually assaulted more than 80 women. Five years later at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground, a dozen Army officers were charged with sexually assaulting female trainees. More recently, at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, 32 basic training instructors are under investigation for allegedly attacking at least 59 victims beginning in 2008.

According to the Department of Defense's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, 2,420 servicewomen reported they'd been victims of sexual assault in 2011.

A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, undertaken in response to women taking new positions on the frontlines of combat, found that although the Defense Department had "taken steps" to meet the health needs of deployed servicewomen, it still fell short when it came to providing medical and mental health services to victims of sexual assault.

The GAO report found, for example, that first responders, including chaplains, victim advocates and health personnel, did not always have a clear understanding of where to take sexual assault victims for a forensic examination, which has the potential of becoming doubly problematic, as the current guidelines state that forensic evidence is only to be collected up to 72 hours after the attack.

The report also found that some health care providers became confused by medical provisions that seemed to conflict with their command obligations, especially when it came to keeping a victim's identity confidential. As a result of this continued confusion, military women were not comfortable reporting sexual attacks.

But the ongoing Lackland investigation, and the release of the documentary "The Invisible War," which examines sexual assault in the U.S. military and is up for an Academy Award, have driven policymakers to act.

Last April, days after outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta saw "The Invisible War," he announced changes in how sexual assault allegations would be handled within the armed forces.

The changes included elevating the authority to prosecute sexual assaults to colonels rather than leaving it to unit commanders, such as the one who initially presided over McClendon's case, perhaps in the hope that this would encourage more women to come forward.

According to the Defense Department's own estimates, only 14 percent of sexual assaults were reported in 2010.

Greg Jacob, the policy director at Service Women's Action Network, a civil rights organization founded and led by women veterans, said there were numerous institutionalized "disincentives" to report rape and cases of sexual assault. If victims of sexual assault were in therapy, explained Jacob, and applied for jobs that required security clearance, they had to disclose both that they were in therapy and that they were in therapy because they'd been sexually assaulted.

"That's one of the reasons that the military developed 'restricted report,'" Jacob said of the provision in which victims can come forward to receive medical attention without pursuing a case. "The climate in the military is so hostile that they had to create a separate system."

Panetta also announced that Special Victims Units would be created for each branch of the military, and a record would be retained of the outcome of disciplinary and administrative proceedings related to sexual assault, and that these records would be kept in a central place.

"We have more work to do to confront this problem. There are no easy answers, but that makes it all the more essential for us to devote our energy and our attention to trying to confront this challenging crime," Panetta, who is soon to leave office, wrote in a 2012 report on the Department of Defense's response to sexual assault.

Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office at the Department of Defense, said in an email to that the military was working to combat sexual assault through multiple avenues, including Department of Defense help lines, increased training for responders and allowing victims immediate transfer from their base or command.

"The solution to the problem of sexual assault requires a multi-pronged approach," said Patton. "One that applies a wide range of authorities, activities and the full efforts of leaders and servicemembers throughout the armed forces and at every level of command and leadership."

For McClendon, it took months after she first reported her attack for a criminal investigation to get under way. She said she was never offered a rape kit, and didn't believe there was even one onboard her ship. Her investigation eventually ended with her attacker pleading guilty to having "consensual sex" and being demoted a rank. His rank was reinstated by the time their ship had reached shore.

"By the time the case had gone forward, any evidence of the rape had been washed away," McClendon said.

Kirby Dick, the director of "The Invisible War," said he talked to more than 100 sexual assault victims, many of who couldn't prosecute their attackers without coming under scrutiny themselves. Dick believes having colonels, who are still within the line of command deciding whether or not to prosecute is problematic for both the victim and the alleged perpetrator.

"They may know the perpetrator or victim," said Dick of the colonels. "Most commanders are horrified by this and want to do the right thing. We should not put them in this position [where they have] a conflict of interest."

The Defense Department's Patton said that taking the authority to discipline out of the chain of command would threaten the ability of the military to be effective.

"Removing the disciplinary authorities from a commander's purview would jeopardize the good order and discipline of the unit, and impact unit readiness," he said.

After years of not wanting to talk about her time in the military, McClendon started working with Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group that assists military survivors of sexual trauma, in 2009.

"I don't want another generation to feel like they're alone," McClendon said. "Those serving today, I don't want them betrayed."