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Tuesday, October 1, 2013
The U.S. military's enemy within

By Steve Marantz
ESPN.com

As a sexual assault case involving three U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen -- all current or former football players -- works its way through the system, advocates for victims of sexual assault in the U.S. military say abuse stems from a culture of misogyny and machismo in which sexual aggression and deviance are tolerated and even admired as the Right Stuff.

The culture, they told "E:60," has been enabled by the U.S. military's system of broken justice that allows the military to attract abusers while providing them a safe haven.

The three Naval Academy football players stand accused of assaulting a 20-year-old female midshipman at an off-campus party in April of 2012. Their case came to pre-trial hearing at the Washington Navy Yard in August. Over five days and 30 hours, defense attorneys questioned the accuser. Many of their questions likely would have been disallowed in a civilian court. They asked if she wore underwear to the party, and if she "grinds" when dancing. They asked how wide she opens her mouth during oral sex.

The case involving the three Naval Academy football players also has added to the awareness of what victim advocates describe as an epidemic of soldier-on-soldier sexual abuse in the U.S. military. And it highlights a collection of statistics from the U.S. Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, confronting the Pentagon: 

• There were 26,000 sexual assaults in the military in 2012, up from an estimated 19,300 in 2011. Victims included 12,100 women (6.1 percent of about 200,000 female service members), and 13,900 men (1.2 percent of 1.2 million male service members).

• There were 3,374 sexual assault reports, up 6 percent from 2011.

• Forty-one percent of all active-duty women report being targeted by crude or offensive behavior; 23 percent report unwanted sexual attention; 8 percent report sexual coercion. For women in the Marine Corps, those rates, respectively, are 50, 32 and 12. Three out of five female Marines say they experience sexist behavior.

• In 2012, of 3,374 complaints, 302 proceeded to trial. There were 238 convictions (a rate of .9 percent of total assaults), and 177 offenders went to jail. Half of the convicted offenders were allowed to stay in the military. 

• Two-thirds of female victims do not report the assaults against them. Among their reasons: they didn't think anything would be done (50 percent), fear of retaliation from the perpetrator (47 percent), they thought they would be labeled a troublemaker (47 percent), they thought they would not be believed (43 percent).

• Of the one-third of women who reported being assaulted, 62 percent suffered retaliation professionally, socially, or through administrative action.

"If you're a rapist, go to the military," said Russ Kendzior, whose daughter, Annie, reportedly was raped twice at the Naval Academy before she left in 2011. Annie, a former high school soccer star from suburban Dallas, had been recruited to play college soccer and chose Navy over Princeton and Harvard.

"They'll protect you," Russ Kendzior told "E:60." "And that's a fact. Statistically, that's the place to go. What a shame."

The case also has refocused attention on a military justice system that has faced criticism for allowing a commander, or "convening authority," absolute power to overturn a court martial decision. Such a system is archaic and rife with conflict of interest, some legal scholars assert.

"I'd describe the system as generally something that would be recognizable by George III, our last king of England," said Eugene Fidell, a lecturer at Yale Law School and co-founder of the National Institute of Military Justice. "We got rid of him in 1776 … but key elements of the system, including the command-centric architecture, are throwbacks to George III. And it's time to get rid of them. ... The decision to charge someone with a crime is a decision that ought to be made by an attorney."

The conflict, Fidell said, is that alleged perpetrators often are crucial to the mission of a commander. At the Naval Academy, for instance, the performance of the football team reflects upon the superintendent, who is the convening authority.

"The key thing is that the commander has a stake in the outcome," Fidell said.

In March, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a review of the system, aided by a nine-member congressional panel. U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has proposed legislation to place judicial power outside the chain of command, as is done in the militaries of Canada, Great Britain, Australia, Israel, Norway and Germany.

Sexual abuse in the U.S. military made national headlines in 1991 with the Tailhook scandal. More than 100 Navy and Marine aviation officers allegedly assaulted at least 83 women and seven men at a convention of the Tailhook Association in Las Vegas. Several officers were disciplined or denied promotion, though none was convicted of sexual assault. One pilot derailed by Tailhook, Bob Stumf, who flew for the legendary Blue Angels, lamented the decline of a "warrior culture."

In 2004, the U.S. Department of Defense created a task force to study sexual abuse. In 2005, it drew up a sexual abuse policy and created the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) to oversee the policy. A cadre of first responders was trained and stationed at major installations.

For a few years, the department cited progress in its annual reports. But in 2009, male instructors at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland began to abuse female trainees. The abuse continued until June 2011 when an instructor was alleged to have raped a female recruit and sexually assaulted at least 10 others. He eventually was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. All told, 24 male instructors and one female instructor have been convicted of crimes from rape to unprofessional relationships with as many as 40 female trainees.

In November 2012 a military jury convicted Air Force Lt. Col. James Wilkerson of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced him to a year in detention and dismissal from the service. But last February, Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, who had jurisdiction over the case, threw out the conviction, reinstating Wilkerson, an F16 pilot and former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy.

Franklin's decision on Wilkerson refocused attention on the justice system.

Gillibrand cites an investigation by the San Antonio Express-News showing that of 1,200 service members who reported sexual assault at the nonprofit Military Rape Crisis Center, 90 percent were involuntarily discharged and diagnosed with mental disorders. Offenders, meanwhile, were rarely punished, and most were allowed to stay in the military.

Annie Kendzior
Annie Kendzior

So it went for Annie Kendzior, who told "E:60" that after she reported her rapes she was put on a regimen of antidepressants that increased over time. When she told doctors of suicidal thoughts, she was ordered in the spring of 2011 to the psychiatric ward at Bethesda Naval Hospital. She was diagnosed with a personality disorder and confined for five days until her father arranged her release. Shortly thereafter, Kendzior was "separated," or discharged, from the academy.

Such actions, Gillibrand says, represent an "extreme form of retaliation."

"The commanders are failing to maintain a command climate where these rapes don't happen, failing to maintain a climate where victims feel comfortable coming forward, failing to maintain a climate where they are not being retaliated against," she told "E:60."

But pushback comes from Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and from Hagel.

"If you take away the authority ... from the commanding officer, then almost any military leader I know will tell you that you may harm their ability to successfully perform in combat," McCain told "E:60."

Said Hagel: "If you take it outside the chain of command, I don't know how you fix the problem. Because the problem's inside the military. The command has to be part of solving the problem."

At the same time, both McCain and Hagel support more extensive reviews of command decisions in cases of sexual abuse. Hagel has asked Congress to amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

"We have to fix the system," Hagel said. "What we want to find is ... whatever we're gonna do, it works, it's better, it's accountable. It protects the victims.

"We're not there yet. But we are getting there. We have never seen a focus on this issue ... like we've seen the last six months. Everyone is serious about this. It will get done. We need to get it done because it's a disgrace to our country. It's a disgrace to our people."

Steve Marantz is an E:60 researcher and author of "Next Up at Fenway: A Story of High School, Hope and Lindos Suenos." Caitlin Thrift contributed to this report.