Sexual Assault in the Military: New Legislation Seeks to Alter Reporting Process

Terri Odam, like so many military personnel, suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The difference, hers was not onset from a missile strike, or air raid, but instead from the rape she endured at the hands of her fellow Navy Sea Bee.

It was 1985, and she was only 22 years old.

“We raised our right hands, to protect the constitution and the United States, not to be raped,” Odam said, referring to victims of sexual assault serving in the military.

When Odam went to her commanding officer to report the incidence, she was called a liar and told to “take an aspirin and go to bed.”

“Despite 25 years of task force recommendations, of Pentagon studies, of congressional hearings, rapes and sexual assaults in the military continue unabated,” said Representative Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who unveiled legislation today at the National Press Club to change the current procedures of reporting sexual assault in the military.

Currently, the power to pursue a sexual assault case lies completely at the discretion of the unit commander.

“They can decide whether it’s true or not… It’s the judge and the jury,” Speier said.

According to the Department of Defense only 13-percent of sexual assaults in the military are reported and they estimate that in 2010 alone more than 19,000 incidents occurred.

“Men and women who have been sexually assaulted in the military have come to realize that military justice is an oxymoron,” Speier said. “They are forced to live…in secret and that leads to a second act of victimization. They suffer while their attackers go unpunished.”

This was true for another victim present at today’s press conference, Heath Phillips, who endured multiple sexual assaults over the span of a year—his first year enlisted in the Navy.

“I was told I was a mama’s boy, this doesn’t happen, you just want to go home, Phillips said. “Because of that, the assaults escalated worse. It was repeated. I would constantly report it, constantly called a liar.  Finally I went AWOL.”

Speier’s newly presented legislation would change the fundamental order of how sexual assaults and rapes are dealt with in the military branches.  A new autonomous group, comprised of both civilian and military experts, the Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Office would handle the prosecution, reporting, investigation and all other aspects of a sexual assault case—taking it out of the hands of commanding officers.

In addition, the new Office, which will be within the Department of Defense, will also create a sexual assault database that will share information with civilian databases.  Currently, sexual offenders convicted within the military are not always required to register with their states sexual offender database.

Speier was able to obtain 44 co-sponsors of the bill “in less than a day” and is confident the bill will “become a bi-partisan piece of legislation.”

When asked how the newly formed office will be funded Speier responded that although she does not have “an estimated cost” it would be much less than providing “PTSD treatment to a victim for 30 to 40 years (and) the loss of productivity that results, the loss of the training when a victim is taken from the service.”

Out of the 13 percent of victims that report, 90 percent are involuntarily honorably discharged, as was the case for Odam.

“We are tired of losing good military personnel just because they were raped. I was one of those. I lost my job because I was raped. It’s got to stop today, period,” Odam said.

Phillips received an ‘other than honorable’ discharge.

However, the loss of productivity and training is also seen when service members like Greg Jacob leave service because he was “unable to protect the marines in my command from one of their own…because I didn’t have the support of higher ups.”

In addition to presenting the bill, Speier introduced a newly formed non-profit called Protect Our Defenders, which according to its website “seeks to honor, support and give voice to the brave women and men in uniform who have been sexually assaulted while serving their country.”

“The failure to respond in a judicious manner to sexual assault its more than an injustice, it is according to some of our military leaders, a threat to our military readiness,” Speier said.  “Members of military units survive on the code of watching out for one another. When sexual assaults or rapes are hushed, ignored or treated lightly, trust in a unit is compromised along with its collective readiness to engage the enemy.”