Can Biden Make the Military Safe for Those Who Serve?

Female and LGBTQ soldiers may face more danger from their colleagues than their enemies. Here’s what the president-elect can do.

Veterans and service men and women hold a press conference outside the U.S. capitol to demand justice for Vanessa Guillen, who was killed by a fellow soldier stationed in Texas, in Washington, DC on July 21.
Veterans and service men and women hold a press conference outside the U.S. capitol to demand justice for Vanessa Guillen, who was killed by a fellow soldier stationed in Texas, in Washington, DC on July 21. Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

In April this year, Airman 1st Class Natasha Aposhian arrived at Grand Forks Air Force base in North Dakota. Around the same time, Army Specialist Vanessa Guillén disappeared from her Fort Hood base in Texas after experiencing sexual harassment that, according to her family and attorney, she was too afraid to report. Both were found dead in June: Aposhian was shot and killed in a dormitory by a fellow airman she had been dating, while Guillén’s mutilated remains were discovered just outside the base, where her murderer—an Army enlisted soldier—had hidden her.

The next month, in a letter to the heads of the Air Force and Army (the military branches in which Aposhian and Guillén had served), State Senator Daniel Ivey-Soto, president of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, mourned the loss. “Enlisted women—especially enlisted women of color,” he lamented, “have more to fear from those with whom they serve than from this nation’s enemies.” That’s been the sad truth for much too long, and it became even worse under the Trump administration: take as one example sexual assault in the workplace (referred to as military sexual assault)—a 2018 Pentagon survey found a 44 percent increase in the number of women victims compared to 2016.

Guillén’s case has sparked outrage around the country and an outpouring of female service members’ stories of their own sexual harassment and assault. It prompted investigations into a culture of sexual harassment and bullying that Fort Hood soldiers allege their leadership ignored, and new legislation (introduced with bipartisan support in the House and Senate) that would change how the military investigates and prosecutes sexual harassment complaints, reinforcing a years-long Senate push. Aposhian’s family hopes that the military’s current reckoning will also address the intimate partner violence that claimed their daughter’s life—going beyond victim services (the focus of a Senate bill introduced last week) to tackle systemic reform.

With the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on Nov. 25, activists are looking ahead with hope. Congress is in the throes of negotiating the final National Defense Authorization Act and its proposed provisions on domestic violence and sexual harassment in the military. President-elect Joe Biden has promised that the Department of Defense will “take urgent and aggressive action” on this issue—guided by an expert commission—and recognized that “ending assault in the military requires determined leadership and accountability at every level—starting with the commander in chief.”

He’s right. Attempts to address military sexual assault have been inadequate, leaving women and LGBTQ service members at heightened risk of violence and harassment in the workplace. Biden’s attention to this issue is welcome, and should extend to all forms of gender-based violence in the military—including the long-neglected violence that service members experience in their homes. Indeed, too many officials dismiss intimate partner violence in the military as a private family matter, despite the significant number of active-duty women it harms. Roughly one in three female service members are affected by physical violence, rape, or stalking by a partner in their lifetimes, and over half report psychological aggression from an intimate partner. And like Aposhian, some are killed by their partners, including on the very military bases that should be the safest places for them to live and work. Yet, symbolically, the office with primary responsibility for military domestic violence, the Family Advocacy Program, is under separate command from every other Pentagon office charged with addressing violent and harmful behavior in the military.

In permitting gender-based violence in all its forms to continue across the military with little response, for years, the Pentagon and Congress overlook its ramifications on the health, readiness, and diversity of the force. When service members are afraid to report the violence they experience, from intimate partner violence to workplace harassment—as was the case for Aposhian, Guillén, and countless other women—it signals soldiers’ broken trust in their leaders, which undermines the unit’s cohesiveness and readiness.

The military’s strength is determined by its ability to attract and retain talented and hardworking women and men, yet efforts by the Pentagon to increase diversity are undermined by a hostile environment of misogyny and racism that drives women out of the force. Indeed, survivors feel betrayed by the Pentagon’s insufficient response, which creates “an environment in which they no longer felt valued,” according to one study, and contributes to higher rates of suicidal thoughts among veterans with a history of military sexual trauma.

The costs of this betrayal are staggering: Estimates suggest the Department loses more total service members to discharge after they report sexual assault than it does to combat (around 5,300 service members separated from service due to sexual assault in just the six-year period of 2009-2015, compared to around 6,900 soldiers killed in action over nearly 20 years of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom). And the costs of the department’s inaction are growing: Pointing to the Army’s failure to protect Guillén and its mishandling of the investigation, civil society stakeholders and veterans organizations are now actively discouraging women from entering into military service for fear of their safety. This pattern persists despite the Department’s commitment to be a model for increasing gender diversity and inclusion.

It is long past time for the Pentagon and Congress to elevate all forms of gender-based violence in the military—including intimate partner violence—to the level that victims deserve. The marching orders for Biden’s proposed White House commission should be clear.

First, protection of threatened service members or military dependents is weak. Currently, the military protective orders that commanders issue to protect victims from their abusers provide insufficient coverage for survivors outside of the military base, including the more than 65 percent of military families who live off base. Lawmakers have proposed allowing military judges to issue protective orders, in addition to commanders—in order to make the orders enforceable by civilian law enforcement (this approach would also be more compliant with the Violence Against Women Act that Biden championed as a senator). Yet, defense officials have actively discouraged this solution, arguing that the administrative burden on military judges (read: the extra work these orders would entail) outweighs the benefits of the additional protections for at-risk military families.

Second, too few perpetrators are held accountable. It was only in 2018 that Congress identified domestic violence as its own crime under military law—before that, it was prosecuted as a general form of assault, which advocates argued diminished the unique and serious nature of the crime. But ensuring domestic abusers are routinely charged with the crime by the military is another matter; until the president requires it (which Trump never did), military lawyers can still opt not to use this specific indictment. And when the abuser is a service member, the decision of whether to prosecute—as with sexual assault and abuse, and other crimes—controversially belongs to their commander. Some lawmakers have proposed shifting prosecutorial authority to independent military prosecutors, given perceptions of commanders’ conflicts of interest and the chilling effect on reporting; others have argued for maintaining and respecting the Pentagon’s chain of command. Biden has committed to exploring “all options” for how cases are reported and prosecuted in order to end this scourge.

Third, the Pentagon does not effectively monitor intimate partner violence in the military. It relies on incomplete data despite recommendations by the Government Accountability Office 14 years ago (and again 10 years ago) to fix its broken tracking system. And it does not have a formalized, data-driven annual fatality review process for domestic violence-related deaths and other homicides and suicides related to gendered abuse, assault, and harassment—failing to hold its leaders accountable for losses like Aposhian and Guillén, and missing an opportunity to identify trends that could improve its prevention efforts.

It is long past time for the United States to ensure its military is safe for all who want to serve. Indeed, the next Secretary of Defense will assume leadership of the Pentagon at a key inflection point in the U.S. military’s—and the nation’s—reckoning with systemic racial and gender injustice. Left unaddressed, long-standing undercurrents of racism and misogyny will continue to foster an unequal and unsafe climate for the service members most impacted by violence and abuse, with women of color, and gay, lesbian, and transgender service members paying the highest price (a climate that the Trump administration’s ban on transgender soldiers has no doubt worsened, and which Biden has promised to reverse).

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis once said that while “casualties on the battlefield are understood to be consistent with our military duties,” the Pentagon should accept “no casualties due to sexual assault within our ranks.” And yet, as the deaths of Aposhian and Guillén have made painfully clear, the armed forces and broader department remain a hostile, unsafe environment for many women servicemembers and civilians. The White House, Pentagon, and Congress must urgently change that—for the sake of servicewomen’s lives and dignity, the strength of our military, and our global credibility.

Jamille Bigio is a senior fellow in the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former director for human rights and gender on the White House National Security Council staff.  Twitter: @jamillebigio

Cailin Crockett is a Truman National Security Fellow and former policy advisor on violence against women in the Obama-Biden administration.

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