Seventeen former and active-duty service members filed a class-action lawsuit this week against Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, alleging that the military had failed to stop rapes, investigate reported crimes or prosecute perpetrators. Despite ample evidence of the problem, the suit alleges, Gates and Rumsfeld "ran institutions in which perpetrators were promoted . . . and Plaintiffs and other victims were openly subjected to retaliation." While the suit is new, the problem of sexual assault of service members by other service members has long been known to the military leadership.
The Defense Department recorded 3,230 sexual assaults involving members of our military in fiscal 2009, up 11 percent from 2008. But the Pentagon itself concluded in 2006 that only 20 percent of "unwanted sexual contacts" are reported to a military authority, about half of the rate in the civilian sector. Victims of military sexual assault are often forced to choose between frequent contact with the perpetrators or sacrificing their career goals to protect themselves from retaliation, the Department of Veterans Affairs notes.