By William Fisher
Three prominent civil liberties advocates are suing the government to obtain records documenting tens of thousands of incidents of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military.
The Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Connecticut are charging that military sexual trauma (MST) results from these kinds of acts, which they say occur nearly twice as often within military ranks as they do within civilian society.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in New Haven, Connecticut against the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs because the government failed to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests.
"The government's refusal to even take the first step of providing comprehensive and accurate information about the sexual trauma inflicted upon our women and men in uniform, and the treatment and benefits MST survivors receive after service, is all too telling," said Anuradha Bhagwati, a former Marine captain and Executive Director of SWAN.
"The DOD and VA should put the interests of service members first and expose information on the extent of sexual trauma in the military to the sanitizing light of day," she added.
The lawsuit is to "obtain the release of records on a matter of public concern, namely, the prevalence of MST within the armed services, the policies of the DOD and VA regarding MST and other related disabilities, and the nature of each agency's response to MST."
Sandra Park, staff attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project, told The Public Record, "The known statistics on military sexual trauma suggest that sexual abuse is all too prevalent in our military. But we know that many service members who suffer from abuse are not receiving the treatment they need. The truth about the extent of this abuse and what has been done to address it must be made known."
MST is particularly widespread among servicewomen, many of whom struggle to return to civilian life after suffering sexual assault or harassment while serving. While the number of homeless veterans has declined over the past 10 years, the number of homeless women veterans has doubled. In fact, 40 percent of homeless women veterans have been sexually assaulted while serving in the armed forces.
In 2009, the DOD estimated there were some 3,200 cases of MST. Lawyer Park suggested this was a significant under-count.
Survivors' VA disability claims are often rejected because they cannot prove an initial assault or rape, even if the veteran has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder by a VA military sexual trauma counselor.
"The government is failing to care for the overwhelming number of women who so desperately need help coping with something as devastating as rape, sexual assault and harassment," said Andrew Schneider, Executive Director of the ACLU of Connecticut. "These women have already put their lives on the line by serving their country. The least that the government can do is disclose the scope of the problem."
The ACLU’s Park was asked why the military doesn’t want to disclose this information?
“The Defense Department (DOD) has acknowledged that the statistics are shocking. But since so much of this abuse goes unreported, there has been no systematic effort to collect data that would suggest the size of the problem,” she said, adding:
“Nor has there been and systematic effort to reform the system. The government just doesn’t want the adverse publicity that would result if the scope and true cost of this problem were publicly known.”
She said documents obtained would be made public. They would also be shared with DOD the Veterans Administration. “The VA needs these records to develop policies for collecting and maintain records and crafting fact-based treatment plans” for victims of MST.”