Sexual assault in the military is widespread, but the Pentagon and the VA will not release records documenting the extent of the problem and how it is handled, says a lawsuit filed today in U.S. District Court in New Haven by advocacy groups working with the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic.
“The government’s refusal to even take the first step of providing comprehensive and accurate information about the sexual trauma inflicted upon our women and men in uniform, and the treatment and benefits [military sexual trauma] survivors receive after service, is all too telling,” said Anuradha Bhagwati, a former Marine captain and executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network [SWAN], one of the plaintiffs.
The plaintiffs, which also include the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Connecticut, allege that their efforts to seek records on the prevalence of sexual assaults in the military, the number of acquittals and convictions, and other data and related policies have been met with resistance by the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. They said they had submitted requests to numerous branches of the two departments in October, under Freedom of Information laws, but had received either no responses, partial responses, or claims that no such records could be located.
They are seeking injunctive relief to compel the production of agency records.
The Department of Defense does not comment on pending lawsuits, a spokeswoman said; a spokesperson for the VA could not be reached Monday night.
The lawsuit makes strong allegations about the military’s handling of sexual assaults, saying “service members still are not adequately protected from [military sexual trauma] while they serve, and victims are still not adequately cared for after they leave.” The lawsuit contends that sexual assaults occur nearly twice as often within military ranks as in civilian society, and that surveys show that nearly one in three women report being sexually assaulted during their time in the military.
The groups also say the government prosecutes only 8 percent of military sex offenders, compared to 40 percent of civilian sex offenders.
In a report last March, the Department of Defense released information showing an 11 percent increase in reports of sexual assault in the military over the prior year, including a 16 percent increase in reported assaults occurring in combat areas, principally Iraq and Afghanistan. The DoD said there were 3,230 reports of sexual assault filed involving service members as either victims or assailants in the fiscal year that ended in September 2009. The Pentagon attributed the rise largely to an increase in the reporting of incidents, and said the jump did not necessarily reflect an increase in the number of incidents.
Military officials have said that the DoD has radically changed the way it handles sexual abuse in the military in the last six years, including encouraging victims to come forward, expanding access to treatment and toughening standards for prosecution.
But Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, said, “These women have already put their lives on the line by serving their country. The least that the government can do is disclose the scope of the problem.”
Counsel on the legal case include William Bornstein and Taylor Asen, law student interns; Michael Wishnie, Supervising Attorney of the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic; and Sandra Park and Lenora Lapidus of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project.
A copy of the lawsuit can be found here.