​The Invisible President: How Obama's Ignored Military Sexual Assault


One year ago this month, I was invited to meet with the White House about the crisis of sexual assault in the military. The meeting was rushed, and had the feeling of a pre-Christmas publicity stunt. The President was nowhere to be seen. His senior advisors insisted that the Commander in Chief cared about the issue but wasn’t ready to put his support behind Senator Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act, legislation that would put independent legal experts in charge of judicial decisions, rather than commanding officers. We were told the President had tasked the Pentagon to study the issue further and report back to him.

One year later, Pentagon data reveals that the mess of sexual assault in the military continues, and the President still remains silent.

Last week’s report, viewable here, is nothing to celebrate. The data is about as easy to navigate as the mountains of Afghanistan, although it’s more user friendly and has fewer mind-numbing graphs than what we’ve seen in previous Pentagon reports. Jezebel is even cited as a source on page 13 (no kidding). But overall, it’s a self-congratulatory report that goes out of its way to inflate the qualifications of military leaders who haven’t spent a day in law school but are lawyering and judging accused perpetrators of sex crimes. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think military leaders were capable of judicial miracles.

Here is what you need to know:

• Over 19,000 service members were sexually assaulted last year. That’s 55 a day. Those numbers are the same as 2010 levels, and it’s the low end of the estimate.

• While overall reporting went up, the percentage of victims who chose to move forward with an actual investigation went down. That means victims have even less confidence in the military justice system than they have in previous years.

• Sixty-two percent of victims who reported assault experienced retaliation. As of 2014, retaliation against sexual assault survivors is a criminal offense under military law, but senior Defense Department officials told me they have no evidence that anyone has been charged, prosecuted and convicted for retaliating against sex crimes victims.

These facts alone warrant the kind of immediate attention we’d expect from a serious Commander in Chief. The kind of attention you’d expect from the man who constantly reminds the public that he cares because he has two daughters. The kind of attention you’d expect from a President who promised to do something more about sexual assault if the report he tasked the Pentagon to give him contained the kind of dismal findings that it does.

This issue is not just heart-breaking. It’s career-ending, it’s life-altering, it’s devastating. I left the Marine Corps heartbroken, betrayed, and traumatized after my own sexual harassment investigation against a fellow officer was swept under the rug by senior commanders and the officer was promoted and given command. Despite my relative privilege as a Captain at the time, I knew to expect the retaliation that followed me, because it followed virtually everyone. I had seen one too many of my Marines ignored, betrayed or silenced after reporting sexual assault. One of my most memorable moments was witnessing a battalion commander try to convince a victim’s mother not to go to CNN with her daughter’s story. Stories of retaliation, silencing, and victim-blaming repeat themselves in the accounts of thousands of survivors we’ve worked with over the years.

But I don’t think the President or his administration cares. The Commander in Chief has never met with veterans who’ve survived these crimes, or with independent victims advocates. Even the Vice President, whose work on the Violence Against Women Act apparently justifies his status as the go-to “good guy” on women’s issues, has been silent on sexual assault in the military. And Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, who have received much attention for their work to help veterans and military families, have been complicit as well. Their refusal to speak for or about troops and family members impacted by epidemic rates of military sexual and domestic violence is hypocritical at best.

If you’re looking for further indication of how little respect the Obama administration gives to sexual assault victims, look no further than his Defense Secretary’s press conference last Thursday on the Pentagon’s newly released sexual assault data. A moment we had hoped would have the gravitas it deserved quickly disintegrated into meaningless drivel, in which outgoing Secretary Chuck Hagel spent his entire Q&A portion of the press conference—over 14 minutes—entertaining press questions about his resignation. The man who many, including me, consider the Soldiers’ Secretary threw traumatized troops under the bus in order to answer questions about himself.

No one should expect reporters to play by rules of moral decency, but Hagel never should have answered those questions. The moment required humility and a sense of timing. It required dignity and respect, a kind of embodied integrity and empathy about the real damage that rape and sexual assault does to a person’s life. If you look at the video you’ll see that the Secretary has his teal military sexual assault ribbon carefully pinned to his left-breast lapel. As this joke of a press conference unfolds, that pin becomes as sickening a political symbol of inaction and obliviousness as America’s “support the troops” yellow ribbons—but more so because Hagel, as the most powerful former soldier in the nation, makes the least powerful troops who serve utterly invisible.

As Hagel abruptly leaves the stage, along with the top brass and half the press corps following him out of the room, a male reporter’s voice is clearly picked up by audio desperately asking Hagel, “One question, on the subject of this press conference?”

One question about military sexual assault, indeed.

The service women and men whose lives have been impacted by rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment deserve much more out of administration officials who are orchestrating these disrespectful public performances. We expect outrage. We expect the Pentagon’s shame. We expect the President’s action.

This is a moment of long-overdue urgency, felt and authentically embodied by leaders in both parties, including Senator Rand Paul. It’s time for the President to put his voice and resources behind the bipartisan Military Justice Improvement Act, and use his pulpit and microphone, including his next State of the Union Address, to recognize the sacrifices and courage of survivors of military sexual violence. Any Commander in Chief worth following ought to uplift the most vulnerable among us.

And so I’m asking, “Mr. President, where are you?”

Anu Bhagwati is the Executive Director of Service Women’s Action Network, and a former Marine Corps Captain.

Image via Getty.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin