NEW HAVEN, Conn. (CN) – Rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment “occur nearly twice as often within military ranks as they do within civilian life” and are the leading cause of post-traumatic stress disorder in women veterans, but the Pentagon refuses to release information on it, or on its feeble efforts to help women who suffer from it, the Service Women’s Action Network says in a federal FOIA complaint.
“Service members still are not adequately protected from MST [military sexual trauma] while they serve, and victims still are not adequately cared for after they leave,” the complaint states. “The government has resisted releasing information that might show the true scope of the problem or highlight its own negligence – information that must be known for the problem to be solved.”
With the ACLU as co-plaintiff, the Service Women cite surveys which “indicate that between 6 and 23 percent of women experience one attempted or completed rape during their service period, depending on the decade. And the story gets worse: 37 percent of military rape victims experience multiple rapes, and 14 percent experience gang rape.”
The complaint continues: “Due to underreporting, the prevalence of MST is likely far greater than current reports suggest. Fear, uncertainty, military dynamics, and military structure prevent victims from reporting approximately 80 percent of the unwanted or threatening sexual acts that they experience.
“The MST crisis appears to be growing. DOD reports show that the number of reported sexual assaults increased 73 percent between 2004 and 2006. More recent DOD reports confirm this trend, showing that the number of assaults rose 11 percent between 2008 and 2009. …
“In one recent study, 71 percent of female veterans seeking VA disability benefits for PTSD reported being sexually assaulted during their military service. Female service members have twice the levels of PTSD and depression as their male counterparts.”
The Service Women ask the Pentagon to “improve the sexual assault reporting procedures and sexual assault training within the military,” and to “prosecute and discipline offenders to demonstrate that it takes the problem seriously”.
They claim that “Even though MST is rampant in the military, the government only prosecutes 8 percent of military sex offenders. By contrast, domestic authorities prosecute 40 percent of all civilian sex offenders. This disparity is especially striking given the fact that the sexual assault of women occurs twice as frequently in the military as it does in civil society. The dearth of prosecutions cases doubt on the government’s claim that it is serious about reducing and preventing MST within the military.”
But, the Service Women say, “The government has refused to release information about the magnitude of the crisis or the nature and extent of its own response. …
“For example, over a decade ago, the government commissioned a report on the problem of sexual assault in the military. The report was due in 2001. The government refused to release the report for years after its due date. The report eventually became public in 2005 when U.S. Representative Lane Evans obtained a copy of it. The report showed MST to be far more prevalent within military ranks than previously thought.
“By maintaining a system that discourages sexual assault reporting, denying MSTW-related PTSD claims, allocating less money than known problems demand, and responding slowly to advocates’ demands, the government has hidden the true cost of MST and has forced victims to silently bear it.
“Much of the information about the extent and cost of the MST problem, along with the government’s reluctance to prosecute offenders and treat victims, is not in the public sphere. The public has a compelling interest in knowing this information, given the potential enormity of the problem, the emotional and financial cost that it imposes on military service members, and the increasing number of women serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
The plaintiffs say they submitted FOIA requests to six offices in the Defense Department “for records relating to the incidence of MST, equal opportunity complaints, and sexual harassment complaints in the armed services. The FOIA requests also asked for documents relating to DOD’s prosecution of sexual assault cases in the armed services.”
In response, the Pentagon’s Office of Freedom of Information and Inspector General denied fee waivers for the searches; both those offices claimed that “they could find no requested records;” and the Army Crime Records center “refus[ed] to search for the requested records. These are the only substantive correspondences received by plaintiffs from the DOD.”
The plaintiffs want to see the documents.
They are represented by Michael Wishnie with the Veterans Legal Service Clinic of New Haven.