Defense Secretary Robert Gates accused of ignoring sexual assaults

The Takeaway

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This story was originally covered by PRI's The Takeaway. For more, listen to the audio above.

Seventeen current and former members of the military claim that top brass have ignored sexual assault charges in the armed forces. They've now filed suit, naming Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld in the lawsuit.

There are some 40 assaults each day in the military, according to Greg Jacob, a former infantry captain and current policy director for the Service Women’s Action Network. And "it's not just a woman's problem," Jacob says, about 40 percent of those in treatment are men.

One of the plaintiffs, Rebekah Havrilla, was a former army surgeon and explosive ordinance disposal technician. She told PRI's The Takeaway that the behavior in her unit was so bad "to the point of being sexually harassed and assaulted by my team leader while I was in Afghanistan and also being raped by a fellow colleague before I came home."

Initially, she didn't pursue an investigation because she was not "mentally, emotionally or physically ready to deal with an investigation and the fallout that would occur from that." Instead, she took part in the army's "restrictive reporting" option. "It took a while," Havrilla said, but eventually she was told, "It's a he-said-she-said and there's really not a lot we can do here."

Few of the sexual assault and harassment cases are actually prosecuted. The General Accountability Office did a study, Jacob told The Takeaway, and found two general reasons why: "The survivors don't believe that they have any protections," Jacob says. "There's a culture of misogyny and hate and there's intimidation that occurs at the Unit level. And all this prevents the survivors from feeling safe enough to come forward."

Also, "they don't feel like anything is going to happen to their perpetrator, which in most cases is true," according to Jacob. "Of the 3,200 that were reported last year, only 410 cases saw the inside of a courtroom."

Many studies have been conducted on sexual assault in the military, but the number of cases continues to rise. Jacob says that the pressure is going to have to come from outside the military to make real change. He told The Takeaway, "It takes an act of congress to get the military to implement its own recommendations from its own studies."

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