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House Subcommittee Begins Series on Sexual Assault in the Military

On January 28, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel held a hearing on sexual assault in the military. Chair Susan Davis (D-CA) stated that the hearing, the first in a series of hearings planned on the issue, would focus on victim advocacy and support, explaining, “No one can deny our responsibility to ensure that victims of a sexual assault receive all the support that can be provided following an attack. The Department of Defense has made significant improvements in recent years to the depth and breadth of services available after an assault since the implementation of a new policy in 2005, but the question we need to ask is, ‘Has enough been done?’ This hearing will look at how the Department of Defense currently handles victim advocacy.”

During the first panel, Rep. Davis engaged Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) and Victim Advocate (VA) representatives from the Air Force, Army, and Navy in a discussion about the effectiveness of current policies. Air Force Captain Daniel Katka outlined his role as a SARC at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX, explaining: “Air Force SARCs report directly to the installation Vice Wing Commander, [which] ensures top level support and immediate access when needed. I also work directly with a Sexual Assault Response Team, or SART…[which] meets monthly to review cases and discuss ways to improve response procedures. I recruit, screen, train, and supervise 70 Victim Advocates, or VAs.” 

Army Sergeant First Class Michael Horwath, currently serving at Fort Hood, TX, said that he has “been working with the sexual assault program in the Army since 2004…Having had close ties to a victim of sexual assault and having a teenage daughter at the time, I was more than happy to step up and become a part of this community.” Noting his work as a SARC both at Fort Hood and while deployed in Iraq, he added, “I have a 21-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son, both who are active duty Army, both deployed right now, and I’m comforted and confident that this program is there for them…that if something as traumatic as a sexual assault was to happen to them that this program that I’ve been a part of for the last four years would be there to see them through, to help them overcome the trauma that would take place in their life and get them back to their day-to-day business of being soldiers.” 

Laura Watterson, a former service member and military sexual trauma (MST) survivor, discussed the lack of support she received following her 2001 incident (before current policies had been established). “When I entered the Air Force, I seriously considered making it a career for myself…[but] after I was assaulted, I no longer trusted anyone on base, and [a military] career was no longer an option for me. Because of my MST and PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] that resulted from it, I was forced to move in with my mother at the age of 30 because I couldn’t take care of myself, keep a job, or feel safe outside…If I had had a caring SARC representative, I believe that I would not have ended up in the mess that I have ended up in.” Noting her current work with other MST survivors, Ms. Watterson addressed several problems she perceived with the system today, including “not enough good SARCs,” “a consistent and rewarded attitude of misogyny,” and a “big problem with many…bases and commanders who have tried to brush off…the mandates and the laws are that have already been put into place…The SARC needs to be able to have enough power to fight the commander when the commanders are ignoring, and basically mocking, the system that has been put into place.”

Rep. Mary Fallin (R-OK) addressed Ms. Watterson, noting, “Madam Chair and I were co-chairs of the Women in the Military Task Force for the Women’s Caucus so we appreciate having another hearing on this important issue…After listening to all the testimony today from our various [military] officials and our Victim Advocates, do you feel like, since your incident in 2001, that we have made progress in the military in establishing procedures and advocates and programs that you would find today [to be] more helpful than what was available to you back then?” Ms. Watterson replied, “To be honest, no. I’ve seen a lot of new mandates…[but] the majority of what I’ve seen and heard from other survivors is that nothing has changed. [The military] is still using a McDowell checklist [a process by which points are assigned to determine the believability of the person who is reporting the sexual assault or the rape] which basically…can turn it around and make it look like [the accuser] is lying, and so someone who comes forward and wants to report [the assault] could be charged with conduct unbecoming [an officer], filing false charges and, if either the victim or the rapist or assaulter is married, they can be charged with adultery. That is a big reason why people do not come forward, [because] other women will see what happens to one woman [who may] basically [have her] life torn apart because [she] went forward and asked for help.”

Rep. Davis questioned the military representatives on the panel about “what kind of authority [SARCs] have to follow up” with a commander when the commander is not satisfactorily dealing with a particular assault. Capt. Katka and SFC Horwath both emphasized their ability to approach base leaders. Capt. Katka stated that being able to approach a Vice Wing Commander “helps us tremendously in advocating for the survivors” if the original commander is not responding adequately. SFC Horwath also noted an emphasis on utilizing the chain of command, specifically entreating higher-ups for support if needed. Navy Chief Petty Officer Tonya D. McKennie explained that the SARCs at her installation were all civilians, and thus “are not subject to military intimidation and have free reign and a lot of leeway in being able to deal with any commanding officers and military personnel.” 

On the second panel, Dr. Kaye Whitley, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) at the Department of Defense (DoD), spoke extensively on the recent addition of the restricted reporting option for victims of MST. Dr. Whitley also testified on this matter before the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs on September 10, 2008 (see The Source,9/12/08). She explained, “Restricted reporting allows victims to confidentially access medical care and advocacy services…Under [restricted reporting], the victim’s report and any details provided to a health care provider, the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, or a Victim Advocate will not be reported to law enforcement to initiate the official investigative process unless the victim consents or an established exception is exercised…In this way, we are able to honor a victim’s privacy while taking steps to keep others safe.” Dr. Whitley continued, “Our experience with restricted reporting tells us that it is a good thing…At the end of [fiscal year] 2007, we had received 1,896 restricted reports since the option was made available in June of 2005. We believe that number represents 1,896 victims who would not otherwise come forward to access care.”

Dr. Whitley also testified about SAPRO’s goals to “change the military culture” that prevents many victims from coming forward, stating, “We hope [SAPRO is] making them so comfortable and so confident in the system that they convert [a restricted report] to an unrestricted report, so we are able to go after the predator.”

In addressing care for victims of MST, Dr. Whitley stated, “When we created our policy in 2005, we established the framework for a coordinated, multidisciplinary response system modeled after the best practices in the civilian world. We work as a team to support victims…Victim care begins immediately upon an initial report of a sexual assault…[SARCs and victim advocates] assist victims with three fundamental principals of victim care: Safety and Security, [in which] SARCs and victim advocates work with victims to identify and address issues related to their physical safety and needs as well as concerns about their commander and the perpetrator; Ventilate and Validate, [in which] SARCs and victim advocates listen to victims’ needs and then connect them with appropriate and necessary resources, including medical care, mental health care, and legal and spiritual resources; and Predict, Prepare, and Inform, [in which] our SARCs and victim advocates explain reporting options, available resources, and what may happen next.” 

Ranking Member Joe Wilson (R-SC) asked how the DoD is evaluating the effectiveness of SAPRO, and “what criteria [is being used] to determine success or failure, and make improvements to the program.” Teresa Scalzo, senior policy officer to SAPRO, listed four main components on which SAPRO currently is focusing to strengthen its programs, including an annual report to Congress, determining on-base compliance with the program, MST prevention, and “constant evaluation,” which includes an “ongoing task force.” She also addressed a question from Rep. Wilson in regard to providing services in deployment environments, stating, “It’s complicated, it’s challenging, and we do our best to ensure that somehow victims have access to those services in remote locations…it is the SARC’s job to figure out how to adapt, and we are currently drafting policy modifications how to [help SARCs to] better adapt.”

Robert Coombs, public affairs director at the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CASA), also testified.

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