Thursday, November 21, 2013

Why I am not moved by the defense of NJP when talking about reforming the military justice system

A couple of caveats, here.  I am a veteran, so I have spent some time in the belly of the beast, so to speak.  (And as a snipe, it's definitely the belly of the beast - down below the waterline, at the widest part of the hull, keeping power and water and heat going to the rest of the ship.)  However my personal experience with women serving was minimal:  Some awareness of female boot camp companies going through at the same time my boot company did, female officer instructors at NNPS, and one short middie cruise in 1993 my ship hosted that included some 12 or so female middies. 

So, I cannot say that I have any direct knowledge of the extent of the sexual assault problem in the military.  However, indirect indica were aplenty.  First was the rape awareness training we got in boot camp that claimed that something like one third of all women in the Navy - not the military in general - were subject to sexual assault during their time in the Navy.  Then there was Tailhook, and how it affected things through the fleet.  And the attitudes some of my higher-ups had about the whole thing.  I had one E7 complain to me that the officer who was assaulted should have known what was going to happen, and should have kept quiet about it.  And he was not the most sexist or traditional of the senior people in my division, let alone aboard ship.

Another factor was my awareness that the nuclear Navy was and is something of a world to itself.  I said and did things while I was in that would have gotten someone in the non-nuke service written up for insubordination.  Some of it was simply accommodations made for a talented, and even respected, misfit; but a lot of it was simply that Rickover's Navy has some very different traditions and attitudes than the rest of the fleet.  In the nuclear navy, if an enlisted member believes that an evolution is going to be unsafe they are trained to stop things.  Now, doing that too often, or in error, is not going to be career enhancing, but in general as a E4 I was telling officers what we would be doing to the engineering plant.  With respect, of course, but there was no question whose expertise was leading the course of action.  Everything I've heard while I was in, and since I've been out, is that that sort of autonomy for junior enlisted personnel is very rare outside of certain specialized services and situations. 

All this has left me viewing the reports of the problems with military sexual assault with a very open mind, and one that finds the reports both appalling and credible.  And dreading what's going to happen when more enlisted women feel empowered enough to speak up - since for a number of reasons the majority of the cases that make it to public awareness are involving female officers.  And simply looking at the numbers, it's reasonable to think that officer assaults are only a tithe of the incidents out there.  And as bad as the retaliation against female officers has been - what enlisted personnel have dealt with is worse. 

I have been offering my support, such as I may, to Kirsten Gillibrand's efforts to reform the miltiary justice system.  In particular the action of Lt. General Craig Ferguson overturning the conviction by a court martial of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson for aggrivated sexual assault brought home to me just how impossible it is for anyone to trust the to military, at this time, to treat such cases with the gravity they deserve. I see now, that Wilkerson is retiring at the rank of Major in the wake of this, claiming to be the innocent victim of political pressure.  If that's what it takes to get his raping ass out of uniform, I'm all for political pressure. 

Today I read that there's an alternate, and more conservative, bill before the Senate to reform the military justice system.  Based on my admittedly brief readings the big difference between the two bills is how they'll handle reports of sexual assault.  Gillibrand's solution is to set up a military office with military lawyers who will evaluate each claim and see to the appropriate action;  the competing bill is to offer more emphasis on the need to treat such reports seriously, but to keep the decision on whether to proceed within the command - and to especially allow for the use of NJP (Non-Judicial Punishment) on such cases. 

For anyone who hasn't been in the military NJP is what happens when someone screws up and breaks the rules badly enough to warrant punishment, but not so badly as to necessitate a court martial. 

NJP offers a lot of benefits, in general, to both the accused, and the command involved - and thus to the service.  It allows for the punishment to be kept in house, and while close confinement (something that's often redundant aboard a ship at sea) is one of the worst punishments available, and the command can usually demote one rank from the servicemember's permanent rank, the long-term effects for the person so punished are rarely career-ending.  It's faster than a court.  It's cheaper, too.  And it doesn't leave the command in question requiring a replacement.  It is the rolled-up newspaper the military uses to try to keep its servicemembers from going completely off the rails. 

And with the majority of the things that can get a servicemember in trouble, I think it's a great thing.  Brawling, drunken behavior, and other things that often crop up can be handled quickly, and efficiently.  While allowing the servicememeber a chance to correct his or her behavior. 

NJP, when there is such a horrible epidemic of sexual assault within the military is not the answer.  When you have general level officers excusing a convicted rapist because he knew the officer in question couldn't possibly be guilty - it's a clear flag that at this time the military cannot be trusted to judge for itself when a sexual assault is the result of a behavior that may be corrected, or one that requires the most stringent sanctions. 

I recognize that by taking NJP away from commands in the case of reports of sexual assault is going to reduce the command's authority.  And create problems for units all over the globe.  Particularly with staffing which can often be a truly fragile construct. 

But when the officer in charge of coordinating training and doctrine to prevent sexual assault in a branch of the military is convicted of sexual assault, himself - when a general feels justified in reversing the verdict of one of the rare courts that actually got impaneled in response to a claim of sexual assault - when multiple boot camp instructors are convicted of using recruits for sexual pleasure - it is impossible to deny that there is a major problem with sexual assault in the military.  Too many people have come forward to report the chilling effects of the way they were treated when they tried to report their own assaults, and found that the command not only didn't listen to their complaint, but would retaliate against them. 

In the 20 years since Tailhook the military has had a chance to show it could take sexual assault seriouisly.  It has squandered that opportunity.  It is time to take a more active stance.  And if that means that authority of the commanders in the field is being beaten a bit about the edges, they had their chance. 

NJP does not work for sexual assault.  Maybe it will again in the future.  But not until the culture in the military changes. 

We need stronger measures, and that's what Sen. Gillibrand's bill offers.