After stalling for nearly a decade, bill protecting service members from sexual assault gains traction
Melanie Veal went to Air Force basic training 12 days after graduating high school. The first place they sent her was a Marine Base in Okinawa, Japan, where sexual harassment started the moment her plane landed.
"I've never been so embarrassed in all my life. As he searched my bag, he pulled out a pair of my underwear and held it up and said 'I got purple' to a guy, another one of his fellow officers," she said, suspecting them of having a competition with each other.
Then, there were the phone calls.
She was supposed to spend a few days getting used to the time difference, but her phone rang off the hook. Marines could see the manifest of people arriving and there was about one woman per 100 men. She had to have the phone in her room disabled so she could sleep.
Sexual comments followed, first from a master sergeant, then from another person who outranked her. She reported the men. They were spoken to about their behavior and the comments stopped. But they retaliated, picking on her and running her ragged.
"I could never get any peace, I couldn't get any rest," she said.
One day, the master sergeant kept assigning her tasks until she was nearly late to a training assignment. But he offered to give her a ride across the base so she'd get there in time.
"So as we were leaving, out the back door, there to the left, before you got to the exit door was our storage room where we kept everything, and the door was open," she said. "So as I started to pass that door, he shoved me in and subsequently shut the door behind him and stood there. And he said, 'It's time.' "
He violently attacked her. She screamed for help. Eventually a civilian woman working in the building interrupted the attack and Veal ran. She reported the crime immediately.
In the military, commanding officers determine which crimes are investigated and how they are prosecuted. In this case, the man was court martialed, his rank was reduced, and he was eventually transferred. But Veal doesn't remember him spending a day in jail and she remained under his command after she reported him.
The Department of Defense says there were over 7,600 sexual assaults involving service members in 2018. Other reports say the number is higher, nearly one in four servicewomen, according to the journal Trauma, Violence & Abuse.
The military's #MeToo moment
Veal doesn't like talking about what happened because it causes her to relive the trauma. But she spoke about her experience recently because of the murder of Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen last year in Fort Hood, Texas. Guillen was sexually harassed and brutally killed by a soldier who outranked her. Guillen had previously told her family she didn't report the harassment because she feared retaliation.
It's a problem the Department of Defense tracks.
Last year there were 60 reports of retaliation against 76 people associated with sexual assault or sexual harassment cases. About three-fourths of those complaints were lodged against a commanding officer.
The military mandates sexual harassment prevention training. Each branch also has its own sexual assault and harassment program that gives people medical care and, in some cases, the chance to anonymously report sexual assault and harassment. But that hasn't been enough to significantly reduce the number of sex crimes reported in the military over the past decade.
Guillen's family argues if she'd felt more comfortable reporting the harassment, she might not have died. Her murder sparked a #MeToo movement in the military, with veterans and active service members speaking about their experiences being sexually assaulted or harassed.
'The time has come'
A bill that addresses the issue of criminal justice in the military is getting fresh support after being stalled in Congress for nearly a decade.
Ohio Congressman Mike Turner, a Republican, is among those pushing for bipartisan support of the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act of 2021.
"This is an issue where the time has come," he said.
Currently, commanders without any legal training determine whether to prosecute crimes, including murder, rape and sexual assault. The proposed bill takes most felony crimes out of the chain of command and turns them over to military prosecutors with experience working complex legal cases. The bill also increases sexual assault and awareness training among soldiers and military prosecutors that would handle the cases. Security in living spaces on military sites would also be increased.
Turner says the Department of Defense now supports having trained military prosecutors handle felony crimes, something it has previously opposed.
"It's not just the victims of sexual assault that are victims," he says. "Anyone who feels that if they were a victim, that the system itself would not protect them. are inherently a victim of the system. And we want to make certain that everybody who serves their country is safe from threat from their fellow service members, and that they have a system that honors the promise that they've made to their nation."
Turner says the bill is currently in conference between the Senate and House Armed Services committees, the furthest it's ever been before. A final bill could be available in a few weeks.