Spotlight on America: Removing sex assault cases from military bosses: How new momentum could change the system
Spotlight on America – August 9, 2021
By Joce Sterman, Alex Brauer and Andrea Nejman
COSTA MESA, Cal. (SBG) — Sexual assault in the military is a growing problem, with more than 20,000 service members reporting sexual assault in 2018. For years, survivors have told Spotlight on America there’s no chance for justice because the military lets its leaders decide how cases proceed. Now there’s optimism that a change to the system is coming. But despite support from top military leaders and Congress, there’s no final decision yet.
Sasha Georgiades can recall the best times during her career in the Navy as a gas turbine mechanic. Growing up in Oklahoma, she never imagined she’d see so much of the world. Georgiades can point to one picture that helps her remember the happiest she’s ever been. It shows her as a young woman in training, with orders to join the Navy fleet in Hawaii, about to start what she hoped would be a lifelong career.
But Georgiades told us that happiness was destroyed by an incident that changed her life, explaining she was sexually assaulted by a fellow sailor in her barracks while she was stationed in Hawaii. “I had my whole future in front of me, and then just as quickly as it was given, it was taken away,” she said.
After filing a report, she said she told her senior enlisted officer.
“His response to me was, ‘He’s a really good sailor, do you want to ruin his career?'” And I just looked at him and I shrugged my shoulders and I was like, I guess not.” survivor Sasha Georgiades told Spotlight on America. “I just ate it and I worked with this guy every day.”
For three years, Georgiades says she worked alongside the man she claims assaulted her. She said he was never formally disciplined and faced no punishment from any superiors in their chain of command. In fact, she said her alleged perpetrator continued to rise up the ranks, with a “fantastic military career” to this day.
Georgiades’ story echoes those of other survivors of military sexual assault who say the system is stacked against them, largely because the chain of command ultimately decides what happens in their cases. “There’s pure bias with chain of command,” Georgiades told Spotlight on America. “They know their service members, so they can almost pick and choose if they want to do something about it. You have to have a third party doing this.”
But despite decades of calls for change, the military continues to handle sex assault and sexual harassment cases in-house, relying not on an independent party trained specifically in the law, but on the chain of command to make the call about cases. Often, the cases never make it to trial. In a Spotlight on America investigation last spring, we analyzed statistics from the Department of Defense, finding that out of more than 2,300 sexual assault cases that had enough evidence to move forward, less than 400 of them proceeded to trial.
This year, the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military, a special Defense Department task force, made new recommendations to combat the problem, reporting that the military’s justice system is not equipped to respond to special victim crimes properly. . The report says, “Special victims—particularly survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence—deserve all critical decisions about their case to be made by a highly trained special victim prosecutor who is independent from the chain of command.”
This year, with a new Secretary of Defense and White House in place, there’s optimism that the system will finally change. Colonel Don Christensen with Protect Our Defenders, a leading organization dedicated to ending sexual assault in the military, told Spotlight on America, “We’re at a turning point. Change is coming.”
Christensen said the 2020 killing of Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen in Texas sparked new outrage, and prompted new momentum for change. Guillen had reported being sexually harassed by a fellow soldier before she was killed, but her family claims nothing was done about it. A review of Fort Hood later found that the base’s climate was “permissive of sexual harassment and sexual assault.”
In April, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, along with a bipartisan group of Senators, survivors and Colonel Christensen, introduced the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act. It would move the decision to prosecute away from the chain of command, giving the task to independent military prosecutors.
According to Gillibrand’s office, the bill would also:
- Ensure the Department of Defense supports criminal investigators and military prosecutors through the development of unique skills needed to properly handle investigations and cases related to sexual assault and domestic violence
- Require the Secretary of Defense to survey and improve the physical security of military installations – including locks, security cameras, and other passive security measures – to increase safety in lodging and living spaces for service members
- Increase and improve training and education on military sexual assault throughout our armed services
Gillibrand’s bill reportedly has 66 Senate co-sponsors, what is considered a filibuster-proof majority.
In a summer breakthrough, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s personnel subcommittee voted to add her proposal as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, a spending bill that must be passed every year. President Joe Biden has reportedly voiced that he would sign the legislation removing sex assault from the chain of command.
On the House side, a leading voice on the issue is Congresswoman Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who sat down with Spotlight on America this spring to discuss her efforts. Representative Speier recently introduced the Vanessa Guillen Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, which mirrors the Senate proposal. It gives authority to independent prosecutors to make decisions on sexual assault cases. “What we have in the military is a system that’s based on who you know and who you like and it’s still in many respects a good ole boy network,” Speier said. “This isn’t about sex. This is about power. And I think in the end, what we need to do is make sure that people are being held accountable.”
But as Congresswoman Speier told us, the system has been resistant to adapt, with many of her colleagues in Congress slow to accept the need for change.
“Congress is to blame. We’re the last to be enlightened on so many issues,” Representative Jackie Speier, D-Calif., told us. “I was a lone voice in the wilderness for a number of years, even within my own party. And then it started to evolve where there was a recognition that it’s not working, we’ve got to do something here.
Even with all of the support for change, there are some lawmakers reportedly opposed. Some, we’re told, believe sexual assault and harassment should be removed from the chain of command, but believe that other cases should remain in military purview, complicating the outcome of legislation. Spotlight on America reached out to every Senator reportedly opposed to the legislation. None of them would agree to an interview.
In June, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin broke with past leaders, vowing that the DoD will work with Congress to remove prosecution of sex assault and related crimes from the chain of command.
Christensen told us that under the legislation, instead of having commanders making decisions, there will be a senior JAG, or Judge Advocate General, who will make the decision about whether a case should go forward based on the law and facts. He called it “blind justice,” saying it’s exactly what we have in the civilian world.
“It’ll be faster. It’ll be more efficient,” explained Colonel Don Christensen with Protect our Defenders about legislation removing sexual assault cases out of the chain of command. “And better decisions will be made about whether a case should or should not go to trial.”
But even as the military is aware of the potential for change, whether they’re preparing for it remains to be seen. Spotlight on America asked the military if it is working on a framework to create the change and what the new protocol would look like should new legislation pass. The DoD did not respond to our questions. We also made multiple requests to sit down with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to discuss the issue of sexual assault in the military. We received no response.
“The military should be reading the tea leaves and know this is going to happen and they should already be working on it. I doubt it, but they should be,” Christensen said.
As Representative Speier, Senator Gillibrand, Colonel Christensen and others fight for a vote on Capitol Hill, Sasha Georgiades is doing her own work in California. She started a job with a Congressional lawmaker, lobbying for veterans issues. It’s work that brings her back to the hope she felt as that young woman in the photograph. “She’s there. She fights a lot to surface. But she’s there. I feel like she’s the reason I’ve made it to where I am now,” she told us.
To this day, Georgiades says she suffers from PTSD and anxiety. When times are tough, she turns to her fridge, which is covered with colorful sticky notes with positive affirmations. The notes include phrases like “You are healing” and “You deserve to be heard”. She told us they help her get through the pain and trauma of her experience.
While she’s hopeful that change will come, Georgiades reminded us of what it took to get to this pivotal moment, pointing to social media, where she’s bonded with other survivors. She said, “The amount of Facebook pages and the amount of members on these Facebook pages, why are we not realizing this is a huge problem? We shouldn’t have this many people saying ‘Me too.'”