Uncovering Sexual Assault in the Military

By Sandra S. Park, ACLU Women’s Rights Project

Rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment are so prevalent in the military that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has coined a term to refer to these acts when perpetrated against servicemembers: "military sexual trauma" (MST).

In 2008, the VA found that more than 48,000 female veterans suffer from MST. Yet, while one in three women are sexually assaulted during their service, the military has failed systematically to investigate complaints, appropriately punish perpetrators, and treat trauma and other health conditions suffered by survivors.

Victims who report MST commonly face stigma and retribution. Superiors in the chain of command are charged with investigating reports and have little incentive to document assaults which could reflect poorly on leadership evaluations. In the end, only 8 percent of alleged perpetrators are prosecuted. After they leave the service, veterans face enormous obstacles in obtaining medical care and disability compensation connected to sexual assault.

Yesterday, the Service Women’s Action Network, the ACLU, and the ACLU of Connecticut filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit with the Yale Veterans Legal Services Clinic seeking information from the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs regarding how each agency responds to the thousands of servicemembers who experience sexual assault, harassment, and domestic violence every year. The original FOIA requests were sent months ago; yet, the federal agencies have not met their disclosure obligations.

The U.S. cannot continue to turn a blind eye to these crimes. We filed this lawsuit because the extent to which the government addresses, ignores, and hides military sexual trauma and its effects must be known. Only then can we do right by those who have been assaulted in uniform.

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