The United States House of Representatives announced a new bill on July 23, 2021, which is expected to pass in the near future, as it has over 200 House supporters. This bill, HR 4104 or the Vanessa Guillen Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, will “overhaul” the laws surrounding sexual assault in the U.S. military.
According to congress.gov, the act was sponsored by Representative Jackie Speier of California. The website states that the bill is meant “to reform the disposition of charges and convening of courts-martial for certain offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and increase the prevention of sexual assaults and other crimes in the military.”
In the military, sexual assault goes largely unreported and addressed because of a lack of proper legislation. If HR 4104 passes both the House of Representatives and the Senate, victims of sexual assault will have an easier time reporting their attack and seeing them properly dealt with. The laws will change from being more “perpetrator-oriented” to being more “victim-oriented.” This will make service members feel more comfortable and willing to come forward and discuss what happened to them with their superiors.
The bill is named after U.S.Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen, 20, who was brutally murdered in Fort Hood, Texas. She disappeared on April 22, 2020, and was confirmed dead on July 3, 2020. The New York Times stated, “Specialist Guillen’s bones, hair, and other remains were found at the end of June. A federal complaint alleges that a soldier — who fatally shot himself with a pistol as the police approached him — killed Specialist Guillen at Fort Hood, hid her body in a large box, and attempted to dismember and burn her remains with his girlfriend.”
Specialist Aaron David Robinson, 20, was accused of the attack. He shot and killed himself days before charges against him were officially announced.
Currently, the laws surrounding sexual assault in the military are extremely loose and more often than not let those who sexually assault others off the hook. According to The New York Times, “Of the more than 6,200 sexual assault reports made by United States service members in fiscal year 2020, only 50, – 0.8 percent – ended in sex-offense convictions under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, roughly one-third as many convictions as in 2019.”
“Sexual assault is something that nobody should ever face. It ruins relationships, breaks trust, and causes long-term effects on the victim,” Olympic Heights senior Raluca Gageanu comments. “These effects can range from anxiety and stress to diagnosable PTSD. Sexual assault should be avoided at all costs and the US government should do whatever possible to put an end to sexual assault within the military as these service members need to be able to trust each other, not fear each other.”
According to pbs.org, “Approximately 20,000 U.S. military members are sexually assaulted annually. But only 7,816 reported those cases, and only in 350 cases were perpetrators charged with a crime.” Sexual assault in the U.S. military is running rampant, and the sooner the act is passed, the safer the U.S. will be.
The U.S. will be safer because the service members will be safer. If a person enlists to serve, is then sexually assaulted, and cannot do anything to the person who hurt them, they begin to feel powerless. This does not make for a successful military to project strength around the world and help those in need. Who would want to serve after being sexually assaulted by someone who is supposed to be a “brother in arms” and cannot be trusted?
OH Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) instructors Retired Master Sergeants Wayne Byron and Carlos Jarquin agree that the way that the U.S. Marine Corps deals with allegations of sexual assaults needs to be revised because perpetrators get off the hook all too often.
A Uniformed Victim Advocate (UVA) is in charge of supporting any victims who come forward to report an instance of sexual assault. Jarquin, who was a UVA while in the Marine Corps, detailed that UVAs give classes to other Marines to teach them how to properly report an assault and make male and female Marines feel safe to report an attack.
“Under Unrestricted Reporting, both the command and law enforcement are notified. With Restricted (Confidential) Reporting, the adult sexual assault victim can access healthcare, advocacy services, and legal services without the notification to command or law enforcement,” according to the US Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) website.
When service members accuse each other of sexual assault, others can begin to look down on the attacker and their reputation may be altered. Most of the time, when a report of sexual assault is filed with a UVA, the names of those involved are not released. However, the victim will be pulled away from the unit and can be seen in the company of the UVA, so others start to put the pieces of the puzzle together, explained Jarquin.
Jarquin also explained that once the report is made to a UVA, the UVA must go to the unit commander, who will then order an investigation into the report. Byron explained that during the investigation, there may be an order of no contact in place from the commanding officer between the parties involved so that they cannot confront each other.
If this is violated, the perpetrator may be placed in the brig (military jargon for jail) and face two sets of charges: defying a military order and sexual assault. If the victim breaks the order, they will be facing a charge of defying a military order.
“In a military environment, they’re scared of what people are going to think,” Jarquin explains. “They do have the option of restricted and unrestricted reporting, but sometimes if a place is so small [which most units are], people put two and two together, so sometimes they don’t feel safe.” Jarquin goes on to explain that tightening up the laws would benefit the victims more.
Jarquin spoke of personal experiences wherein a Marine had DNA proof of an assault, but the perpetrator had a very good lawyer and was not punished whatsoever for his crime. A few months later, the same perpetrator was accused of sexual assault again.
Jarquin detailed how the assaults can impact a person. As a UVA, he witnessed people fall into a downward spiral of depression, anxiety, and fear. Each time a victim goes to an interview, meeting, or court, they have to tell the story of what happened to them in graphic detail, sometimes to a room full of people. This forces them to continually relive a terrifying event, bringing up the trauma each time. Some investigations can last over a year. Victims are encouraged to talk to someone, but it is not required.
“Sexual assault that occurs in the military is especially damaging for the victim and their quality of work,” OH junior Isabella Curra said. “If a person is sexually assaulted while in the military, it will most likely significantly damage their mental health, which in return affects their performance in the workforce. The lack of trust that the victim will begin to feel after the assault will begin to show with everyone they come in contact with.”
Byron offers, “I think that the best way to change it [the military] to be more ‘victim-oriented’ would be to make it so that it has to go through a certain process and actually being investigated regardless of whether or not it’s an unrestricted or restricted case. If the victims do come forward, this ensures that they know that it’s going to actually be handled to the fullest extent and investigated and up to the authority of the court-martial as to what happens as a repercussion for the perpetrator.”
The effects of sexual assault are extreme, as it is normal to feel stress, anxiety, depression, fear, etc. In the military, these emotions can be even more intense because of the brotherhood and close bond personnel often have with each other. This is utterly shattered when someone is assaulted. The victims are going to lose trust in their fellow service members who are there to help them and protect them. Also, in the military, some assaults occur between members of the same unit. This means that the victim has to see the perpetrator often, if not every day.
When an instance of sexual assault is reported within the same unit, either the victim or the perpetrator may be removed through the duration of the investigation thereby relieving the immense stress of the victim having to see the perpetrator on a regular basis.