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For those who work on combatting sexual assault in the United States military, last Thursday should have been a day to celebrate. Hours after two US senators introduced new legislation aimed at preventing and criminalizing retaliation against sexual assault survivors in the military, the Department of Defense unveiled its own strategy to confront the problem.

A US Army specialist and military sexual assault survivor on her bed in Fayetteville, North Carolina. © 2014 Mary F. Calvert

Much of the Defense Department strategy is encouraging: it recognizes the scope of the problem, aims to gather and share more information about how cases are handled, and emphasizes a range of options for commanders to address retaliation against victims of sexual harassment and assault.

But both the Senate and the Pentagon efforts fall short on two key issues. Neither adequately confronts reprisals – the harm done to service members’ careers in retaliation for reporting sexual assault or harassment. More than a third of victims say their careers suffered because they reported an assault or harassment. Because service members can’t sue the military, victims’ only recourse is to report to the inspector general, who can initiate a whistleblower investigation. However, many reported they suffered additional reprisals for seeking help from the inspector general. In addition, the inspector general’s office has never substantiated a victim’s reprisal claim, possibly because, unlike for civilians, military whistleblowers bear the burden of proof. Until Congress brings whistleblower protections for service members in line with those for civilians, legal protections for victims against professional retaliation are worth little.

Second, many victims we met lost their careers because when they reported their assault they revealed minor misconduct – such as underage drinking - that led to their own investigation and discharge. The military does not consider this retaliation and says, in any case, punishment for such offenses is usually minor. But even minor disciplinary action can end a military career, especially in an era of downsizing. Rapists exploit this by sometimes threatening to report victims for misconduct if they report the assault. Nothing discourages victims from coming forward more than seeing victims who do get punished. Granting immunity for minor misconduct that only came to light because the assault was reported is necessary to ensure victims feel safe coming forward. Similarly, those whose careers suffer because they reported should know that they have a legal remedy that works.

Only when these issues are confronted and addressed can we truly celebrate progress in the battle against sexual assault in the military.

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