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Workplace Behavior: The Ethics behind Sexual Assault in the Military

Sexual Assault in the Military and the Military Justice System

From time to time I assign a project to my ethics students to identify a blog already written and present an alternative view or expound on the points made by the blogger. The following blog was submitted by one of my students, Lauren Koenig, who gave me permission to use her work to develop my own blog on the topic of sexual assault in the military.

The US Equal Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as a violation of the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. It relates to any unwelcomed sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. This definition applies when:

  • Submission to, or rejection of, such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of a person's job, pay, career, or

  • Submission to, or rejection of, such conduct by a person is used as a basis for career or employment decisions affecting that person, or

  • Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment

For military personnel, the working environment pertains 24/7, on or off post, and on or off duty. The Army provides an informal and formal complaint process. The Sexual Harassmen/Assault Response & Prevention (SHARP Program) is responsible for the Army's sexual harassment prevention efforts. The Army Equal Employment Opportunity Office provides assistance to civilian employee complainants and the Equal Opportunity Program is responsible for military sexual harassment complaints. The Service Woman's Action Network (SWAN) reports that the Department of Defense (DOD) estimated 19,300 sexual assaults occurred in the military in 2010, and yet only 13.5% of total survivors reported assault.

On March 6, the bill submitted by Senator Claire McCaskill (D - MO) to take sexual assault cases in the military outside of the chain of military command was blocked by the Senate after falling short of a 60-vote requirement by a 55-45 vote. However, the issue was revisited on March 14 and a watered-down bill was approved that enables victims to have a say in whether their cases will be heard in the military or civil-justice system if the assault occurred off a military base. Crimes that occur on a military base will be prosecuted under the military system. The bill also adds an extra level of review in cases where a commander disagrees with a prosecutor's recommendation to move forward with a case. The option for venue is a step in the right direction for the military in dealing with the problem of sexual assault but it doesn't go far enough. Moreover, the bill is unlikely to go to the House as a standalone measure. Instead it is likely to be included as part of a bill expected later this year that authorizes Pentagon spending.

Given that the Senate bill is not the law as yet, it is important to point out that the military justice system now allows the alleged perpetrator to not only have the final say on determining charges for sexual assault cases that take place throughout their line of command, but also to have the power to overturn convictions that may be brought forward.

Kirsten Gillibrand (D- N.Y), a strong proponent for putting an end to sexual assault in the military, urged to remove commanders’ power over cases that arise in the military by advocating for military prosecutors to pursue such cases that may be brought forth. “For two decades every secretary of defense has had zero tolerance for this type of crime but all we have seen for 25 years is zero accountability” Gillibrand stated in an interview following the denial of the initial bill.

Gillibrand and her allies argued during the debate that the only way to restore trust in the military justice system was to allow independent prosecutors - not commanders - to decide whether a case should go to trial. “It is like being raped by your brother and having your father decide the case. That is the perception of the victims.”

There is no shortage of sexual assault cases in the military. In a particularly egregious abuse of position, Staff Sergeant Angel M. Sanchez is charged with harassment in twelve separate incidents. While being deployed in Afghanistan and most recently through his service in Missouri, Sanchez was reported to have made vulgar towards women, spied on women without their consent, forced women to perform sexual acts, and raped a woman in a temporary housing unit. Even more shocking is the case against Lt. Col. Joseph “Jay” Morse. Morse, the top Army prosecutor for sexual assault cases, was suspended after a lawyer who worked for him reported that he had groped her and tried to kiss her at a sexual-assault legal conference more than two years ago.

It was surprising to me to learn that more military men than women are sexually abused in the ranks each year, according to a Pentagon survey, highlighting the underreporting of male-on-male assaults. When the DOD released the results of its anonymous sexual abuse survey in May, it concluded that 26,000 service members were victims in fiscal 2012, which ended Sept. 30, an automatic assumption was that most were women. But roughly 14,000 of the victims were male and 12,000 female, according to a scientific survey sample produced by the Pentagon. Male-on-male assault is a growing problem in the military and may be a harbinger of more problems to come in the aftermath of the removal of the military’s 17-year policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’

Overall, those who commit sexual assault are in violation of the military code of ethics and in violation of workplace ethics. Our country relies on the military to uphold a set of core values throughout the military including integrity, loyalty, respect, stewardship, and duty. The only way we can improve the likelihood of stopping sexual assault is to have an ombudsman investigate all cases of alleged harassment and then make recommendations to the military command. If the military ignores the recommendations, then Congress should investigate and make sure all those who serve are given a fair hearing and abusers are punished for their misdeeds. There is no place for any form of harassment in our society in the presumably “enlightened” period of the 21st century.

Original blog by a student, Laureen Koenig, and expanded upon by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on June 17, 2014. Dr. Mintz is a professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at:

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