Boise conference speaker: Lobby senators on military assaults

An event highlighted the issue of sexual violence in the armed forces.

jsowell@idahostatesman.comOctober 16, 2013 

Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, talks about sexual abuse in the military.

IDAHOSTATESMAN

Late last year, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. James Wilkerson was convicted by a military jury in Italy of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to a year in prison. He was also dismissed from the Air Force and forfeited his pay.

Three months later, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin dismissed the criminal case against Wilkerson and reinstated him.

Add to that a military culture that values its members “fitting in” and that operates in a climate of “fear and intimidation” when sexual violence allegations are made, and it’s tough to pursue those cases, Anu Bhagwati — executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network — told a group of 400 Idaho social service providers who deal with sexual assault victims.

“You have to go against the whole system when you make a sexual assault or harassment complaint,” Bhagwati, a former U.S. Marine Corps captain and company commander, said Tuesday. “There is such an immediate reaction to intimidate, to bully.”

The daylong conference at the Boise Centre, sponsored by the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence, featured speakers and small-group discussions.

The only way to adequately address sexual violence in the military is to take it away from the victim’s chain of command and put it in the hands of a specially trained military prosecutor, Bhagwati said.

Legislation to do that needs support from five additional U.S. senators to move forward, she said. The bill, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Barbara Boxer of California and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, would give crime victims more confidence to report sexual crimes, they say.

Bhagwati said Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch have been on the fence. She urged attendees to ask the two senators to support the legislation.

In many instances, sexual assault allegations are buried without ever coming to trial, she said.

“We’ve got a system in which military commanders are allowed to play a part in determining what crimes actually go forward to trial. There’s an inherent bias in that because it’s that commander that’s making this decision,” Bhagwati said.

John Sowell: 377-6423, Twitter: @IDS_Sowell

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