Robert B. Simpson: Eroding pride

April 13, 2013 

Not every day I spent in the Army was enjoyable. Not every day was happy. Not every day was one I'd ever want to repeat. But every day was proud. Soldiering was, to me, a matter of service and sacrifice for a larger cause, and that was reason enough to be proud of myself and of the uniform I wore. The day my retirement orders were read out and I walked off the parade ground for the last time, the pride came with me.

Now doubt is creeping in. The service I was so proud to belong to, and its sister services, are becoming infamous for a near-epidemic of sexual assaults, with an estimated 19,000 such assaults occurring in a year. Only a fraction are reported, and an even smaller fraction are ever punished.

This type of crime, regardless of where in society it takes place, is sometimes difficult to investigate and often difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. Still, the high rate of offenses in the military services either not investigated, punished lightly, or not punished at all indicates that there is a severe problem. A recent high-profile case of no punishment at all has brought the whole issue to a boil and threatens political action that could weaken the military chain of command. This is a case in which the convening authority, that is, the senior commander under whose authority the court-martial was convened and the case tried, set aside the guilty verdict and the stiff punishment awarded by the court, reinstating the accused officer with no punishment at all.

I am not a lawyer. However, in the course of my military career I sat on more courts-martial, either summary, special, or general, than I can count on all my fingers and toes. So I know it is folly for critics from outside the courtroom, not familiar with the details of the case and the intricacies of the law applicable to it, to second-guess the actions of the court. Or the actions of the convening authority. I also know that, while it's highly unusual for a senior commander to set aside a complete verdict and sentence -- I've never personally heard of its happening until this case -- the military justice system allows the safety valve of the senior commander, the convening authority, after thorough review, reducing, but never increasing, the action of the court-martial.

I happen to be a believer in the military justice system. Were I charged with a serious crime tomorrow, and given the option, I would prefer to be tried by Army court-martial, confident that there would be a dearth of unnecessary courtroom dramatics and small likelihood of my fate being affected by someone else's political ambitions. And secure in the knowledge that a mature and experienced convening authority would review the entire case from all sides and either approve the outcome or reduce it to some degree.

My overall confidence in the military justice system, though, does not extend to complete faith that everyone at every level in the chain of command will pursue sexual assault cases with the vigor they deserve. Yes, there is always the possibility of a manufactured rape charge being brought against an innocent person. Yes, many cases are "he said-she said" and nearly impossible to judge fairly. Yes, sometimes honest mistakes in judgment happen and a case is not pursued when it should be. None of this, though, explains the huge discrepancy between the number of cases diligent research shows to be occurring and the small number of offenders being punished. Nor the maddeningly inconsequential punishments imposed in some cases.

Lest we contentedly sit back, though, and point an accusing finger at the military services, we should consider the fact that, according to a number of studies, almost one fifth of all American women, not just military women, will suffer rape at least once in their lifetime. Civilian, military, whoever. And that, according to a recent study, one-fifth to one-fourth of our daughters, sisters, female acquaintances in college will suffer sexual assault while there. And 25% of our sons, brothers, or other male acquaintances admit that, while in college, they "exerted sexual coercion in some form."

So, I'm losing some of my pride in the armed services, whose members ought to be a notch above others when it comes to such repugnant criminal action as sexual assault. But then I'm not all that proud of the rest of our society in matters of sexual assault, either.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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