As Canada studies sexual assault in the military, the U.S. could be on the cusp of reform

·6 min read
The gruesome death of soldier Vanessa Guillen, pictured in a photograph during a memorial event in Houston last year, has accelerated calls for U.S. military reform. (Marie D. De Jesus/Houston Chronicle via AP, Pool - image credit)
The gruesome death of soldier Vanessa Guillen, pictured in a photograph during a memorial event in Houston last year, has accelerated calls for U.S. military reform. (Marie D. De Jesus/Houston Chronicle via AP, Pool - image credit)

Here's a story Canadians might find familiar: It involves the scourge of sexual assault in the military, years of inaction, and yet another push for reform.

This one is unfolding in the United States.

Over the past week, as Canada called yet another external review to consider policy changes, there were signs that the U.S. could be moving ahead with reforms.

There are different efforts afoot in Washington, spurred by staggering assault statistics, a paucity of prosecutions, and fresh details about one disturbing case.

One effort is a bill just introduced in the U.S. Senate, co-sponsored by dozens of members including ideological opponents who put aside their partisan differences.

"Sexual assault in the military is an epidemic," said the leader of the effort, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, who has introduced bill after bill over the years.

"It has been for a very long time."

The reform effort has made unusual alliances. Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, seen here in 2013, have been promoting a bill to create an independent system for prosecutions of assault in the military.
The reform effort has made unusual alliances. Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, seen here in 2013, have been promoting a bill to create an independent system for prosecutions of assault in the military. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

What has her allies convinced they might succeed this time is the number of new colleagues who have signed onto this latest bill, jointly introduced by 42 members of the U.S. Senate.

Her allies include Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.

Their bill was introduced Thursday, the same day Canada announced its latest review; Cruz predicted this one will become law.

"And it's about damned time," said the Texas senator.

"It is horrific. It is unacceptable that sexual assault is as prevalent as it is today in the military … This is the right solution."

The bill does shifts decision-making authority over whether to seek prosecution — away from the military chain of command, to trained, independent military prosecutors who would evaluate whether to bring a case.

7,000 assaults, few charges

A Pentagon panel is reportedly set to recommend the same.

It's said to have reached that conclusion swiftly, mere weeks after the new U.S. secretary of defence ordered a three-month review.

A retired general, Lloyd Austin, made it a priority upon joining the cabinet, convening the panel, and calling sexual assault and harassment persistent and corrosive problems.

U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, a retired general, calls assault and harassment a persistent and corrosive problem in the military.
U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, a retired general, calls assault and harassment a persistent and corrosive problem in the military. (Kenzo Tribouillard/Pool via Reuters)

The military has resisted the change for years, arguing that it would undermine authority. But the debate is shifting.

Reports of sexual assault have continued to rise, topping 7,000 per year in the U.S. military, a reported rate far higher than Canada's, with charges rarely laid.

The fallout from one gruesome case

One particularly brutal case led to a probe that resulted in the firing and suspension of nearly two dozen military personnel at the Army base in Fort Hood, Texas.

A soldier, Vanessa Guillen, was killed there last year; her body was found dismembered and burned near a river.

A report released Friday confirmed something her family had alleged: that before Guillen's death she had reported being sexually harassed.

The military document said Guillen had twice tried alerting supervisors — and neither acted on her complaints.

The soldier accused of killing her was detained — but escaped detention and took his own life.

Iowa Republican Joni Ernst has joined the ranks of Senate colleagues who support the reform bill. A former military leader and assault survivor, Sen. Ernst had been skeptical but says she now believes the change is necessary.
Iowa Republican Joni Ernst has joined the ranks of Senate colleagues who support the reform bill. A former military leader and assault survivor, Sen. Ernst had been skeptical but says she now believes the change is necessary. (Andrew Harnik/Pool via Reuters)

Friday's report said there was no evidence that harassment was linked to her killing or that the soldier suspected of killing her had ever harassed her. But the report said the suspect did harass another woman on the base.

A separate review found that 1,339 people at that same base said they had witnessed an assault in the past year, and few of those cases were reported.

Politicians have expressed disgust over what they've heard.

One person swayed by this incident, a former skeptic of the proposed reform, is Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican who has been a commander in the National Guard.

She's also a survivor of sexual assault and said she's become increasingly convinced the status quo in the military is unsustainable.

The fact that she and more than a dozen other senators have joined Gillibrand's cause in recent months has proponents optimistic the tide has turned.

Comparisons to Canada

Comments from some U.S. politicians and media reports mention Canada among the countries that have an investigation system that some Americans want to create.

At Thursday's news conference, Cruz brought up the Canadian example.

Yet Canada has its own persistent challenges. More than 100 assault cases per year have been reported on average in the Canadian military in recent years.

Ottawa has launched yet another review by a retired Supreme Court justice six years after one by another retired justice.

In that last review, Marie Deschamps suggested creating a new independent reporting office to handle complaints in Canada.

WATCH | Ottawa plans another review of sexual misconduct in the military:

She wrote that civilian police used to handle those complaints, until changes to the National Defence Act in 1998 allowed the military to oversee assault cases.

Now the country has a hybrid system: Deschamps' 2015 report said the military's investigation unit, the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service, refers about half of cases to civilian law enforcement and others to military police.

One American woman said survivors must have confidence in the system.

One woman's story

Amy Marsh, the spouse of a U.S. Air Force member, said she was assaulted one night by a senior officer after a social event at a base in California.

The attacker, she said, was someone she and her husband considered a mentor. When she asked to press charges, she said military brass refused.

Yet the complaint she filed was used against her husband: it mentioned that forbidden drinking had been going on that night, and her husband received a letter of admonishment and had a promotion suspended.

The Pentagon recently announced a 90-day review into how sexual assault cases in the military are investigated, with panel members seen on the screen. Just one month later, there are reports the panel is already urging a change in the reporting system for assaults.
The Pentagon recently announced a 90-day review into how sexual assault cases in the military are investigated, with panel members seen on the screen. Just one month later, there are reports the panel is already urging a change in the reporting system for assaults.(Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Her alleged assailant was pushed into early retirement, with a reduced pension. She said she was ostracized, and her family felt pressed into leaving the base.

"Instead of seeing my offender prosecuted, what I experienced after reporting was retaliation against my family," Marsh said at a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol.

"[There was also the] destruction of my husband's military career; and an attack on my character that resulted in us having to relocate to a different state so that we could begin to try to rebuild our fractured lives again."

Had her case been evaluated by a trained prosecutor, she said, her attacker might have been forced to answer for his act.

"I might have had a shot," she said.