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MarEx OP-ED: Combatting Sexual Assault in the Military

Military sexual assault is a domestic enemy. It inhibits good order and discipline and is a threat that must be destroyed.

By Denise Krepp 2014-02-03 15:14:00

Last week I testified before a Department of Defense panel regarding sexual assault in the military. This problem has long been hidden but is now coming to light because of efforts by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) to change the decision-making process regarding sexual assault prosecutions. I support Senator Gillibrand's efforts and urge others to do so as well.

The issue of sexual assaults is directly related to my departure at the Maritime Administration (MARAD) two years ago. In 2011, in my capacity as Chief Counsel, I requested an Inspector General (IG) investigation into alleged sexual assaults and other problems at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA). Then Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told me that I shouldn't have requested the investigation. Subsequently, then Deputy Secretary John Porcari asked me to resign because the Secretary had lost confidence in my ability to be Chief Counsel.

I was devastated by Secretary LaHood's remarks concerning my IG request. As Chief Counsel I had a legal responsibility to the USMMA cadets. I was also cognizant of their parents’ concerns. I'm a mother of two young girls. In a few years they will go to college, and I won't be there. I will have to depend on others to do the right thing if something happens to them.

Before joining MARAD I served on active duty in the U.S. Coast Guard. The first class of female officers didn't graduate from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy until 1980, so there were no female admirals. As a result, junior female officers did not have senior female mentors, and we were left to mentor ourselves. It was not an easy environment for a young female officer.

Recognizing the difficulties they would face, I did my best as MARAD Chief Counsel to give female USMMA cadets the tools they needed to succeed. At the annual Women on the Water conference, we taught them how to interact with their male counterparts. Keep your doors open. Don't touch the male cadets. Be smart about what you are doing.

Sadly, predators are very skilled in the way they attack their victims and then hide their crimes. Last year the Department of Defense reported that almost 26,000 active duty men and women were sexually assaulted in 2011. Few of these assaults were prosecuted. The high number of assaults and lack of prosecutions should trouble alumni from the USMMA and the state maritime academies. Given the number of alumni on active duty, there is a strong probability that at least one, if not more, of these victims are alumni of your school. Predators do not discriminate based on where an individual goes to school. They are simply looking for victims.

As a veteran, I'm appalled by the problem. On my first day in the Coast Guard I swore to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Military sexual assault is a domestic enemy. It inhibits good order and discipline and is a threat that must be destroyed.   

Creating an Environment of Respect

The first step in solving this problem is to create an environment of respect for women. I published an op-ed last fall entitled “Female Military Personnel Aren't Whores.” I wrote the piece after reading articles about an alleged attack at the Naval Academy. According to NBC News, defense attorneys asked the alleged victim if she felt like a ho. The alleged victim also testified about a Twitter message sent by a fellow cadet – “She’s loving the crew, that’s my ho too.” Appalling. Female military personnel aren't whores, and they shouldn't be viewed as such.

Additionally, the military shouldn't tolerate bad behavior by its senior officer corps as this behavior is directly linked to victim's trust. The Washington Post published several articles recently about admirals and generals behaving badly. The examples are too numerous (and in some cases, too gross) to mention, but you can get the whole story here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/military-brass-behaving-badly-files-detail-a-spate-of-misconduct-dogging-armed-forces/2014/01/26/4d06c770-843d-11e3-bbe5-6a2a3141e3a9_story.html. The point is that if this kind of behavior extends to the highest ranks, whom can you really trust?

Lastly, the military must change the current decision-making process for sexual assault prosecutions. Senator Gillibrand has introduced legislation that takes that authority away from the current chain of command and places it with independent, trained, professional military prosecutors. The current process isn't working. Victims don't trust the chain of command. They are not reporting the crimes, and the crimes that are being reported aren't being fully prosecuted. Changing the process will increase prosecutions and improve trust.

It is my hope that other veterans will join me in speaking out against sexual assault and misconduct. This scourge shouldn't be tolerated. It brings dishonor to those of us who served honorably. It also harms the long-term strength of our military. Victims must be able to trust that the system will work if an incident occurs. If it doesn't, trust is lost, and good order and discipline are gone. – MarEx

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Ms. Krepp is former Chief Counsel of the Maritime Administration. She testified at the Military Sexual Assault Crimes Response hearing on Capitol Hill on January 30, 2014 along with retired senior commanders from the various branches of the U.S. military. The committee is conducting an independent review of the systems for handling cases of adult sexual assault in the military. Her testimony can be found at minute 47 on CSPAN tape - http://www.c-span.org/video/?317502-1/AssaultC.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.