Our Veterans are Worth Fighting For

Today the nation honors our veterans. For nearly 100 years, we've paused on this day to say thank you. It's a day that's become even more meaningful to us since making The Invisible War. 

In the years since the film's creation, we've met with thousands of men and women who have served and are in uniform today. Their stories inspired us to make the film: to make sure the people who put their lives on the line to protect us are protected when they are victims of a crime. 

Military sexual assault is not a new problem. But it is a problem that was too often ignored, pushed aside, or minimized. We are grateful that by telling the stories of the brave men and women who have survived these assaults, the issue has been brought out of the shadows. 

As we pause today to thank the courageous men and women who have served a grateful nation, we also renew our commitment to serve them. To make sure they receive the justice they deserve. 

We are grateful for every single service member who has spoken out about his or her own assault, or in support of a fellow member.

We are grateful to our partners, allies, and the community of citizens who have called on Congress to change the way these crimes are adjudicated. 

We are grateful for the leaders who have not given up on the issue, despite tremendous resistance from entrenched powers that be. 

When we began to make this film, we knew this was not going to be an easy fight. But we know it is a fight worth fighting, and with each passing day, we are only further committed to victory for survivors. 

So today, as we pause and say thank you, we also want to say: We are with you. We will not forget. We will not give up or give in. We will continue to fight for justice for all survivors of military sexual assault. 

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Gridlock isn’t inevitable. Here are 5 important things the new Congress might do.

Updated by  on January 7, 2015, 9:00 a.m. ET  


Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty

After years of frustrating gridlock, it might be tempting to just ignore the new, fully Republican-controlled Congress — but that would be a mistake. There are some crucial issues that the new GOP leaders have already pledged to address. There are other interesting bipartisan reform proposals that some legislators hope to win more support for. And, of course, the Senate will weigh many of Obama's remaining nominees in his final two years.

The new Congress could tackle all of these important topics in different ways. We'll see whether the body can get anything done — good or bad — on each of the following five issues.

1) Trade deals, particularly the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Trade representatives attend an October 2014 TPP press conference in Sydney.

Peter Parks / AFP / Getty

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the proposed trade deal President Obama and the GOP both love. Broadly, it would extend free trade between 12 countries in Asia and on the Pacific. But critics have blasted the secretive process surrounding it, and argued that it advances the interests of big corporations rather than workers.

The details aren't yet finalized, though you can learn more about them in Danielle Kurtzleben's explainer. But it looks like Obama and Congressional Republicans will both be eager to push the TPP through. In December, soon-to-be-Senate Majority Leader McConnell said he spoke with Obama, and told him, "Send us trade agreements. We're anxious to take a look at them." Around the same time, Obama emphasized his support for the proposal: "There are folks in my own party and in my own constituency that have legitimate complaints about some of the trend lines of inequality, but are barking up the wrong tree when it comes to opposing TPP." He added: "Don't fight the last war."

For now, the issue before Congress will be whether to give Obama "fast-track authority" — which effectively lets the president have an up-or-down vote on the final deal without a risk that Congress will amend it.

2) Fast-track the Keystone XL pipeline

Pipe at a southern site of the Keystone pipeline in Cushing, OK.

Pipe at a southern site of the Keystone pipeline in Cushing, OK. (Tom Pennington / Getty)

The new Republican Congress has signaled that it will push hard to fast-track approval of theKeystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from Canada's oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. Such a measure is extremely likely to pass — one failed to beat a filibuster in last year's Democratic Senate by just one vote. President Obama announced Tuesday that he would veto a standalone bill, and sounded skeptical about the pipeline in a recent interview. But it's been commonly speculated that Obama might be willing to trade away pipeline approval as part of some bigger deal — indeed, "people familiar with the president's thinking" told the New York Times in November that Obama might use Keystone as "a bargaining chip" in 2015. However, the bigger obstacle to US refineries getting more Canadian oil is the recent price collapse — if it sticks, production in the oil sands is likely to be scaled back.

3) Criminal justice reform

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Over the past few years, there have been some noteworthy bipartisan proposals on various criminal justice issues. As Dara Lind wrote in November, the Smarter Sentencing Act — co-written by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Lee (R-UT) — would halve the mandatory sentence for federal drug crimes while also reducing many sentences of current prisoners. And Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) have a bill of their own to press states toward sentencing reform. Potential GOP presidential hopefuls like Rick Perry and Mike Huckabee have also spoken out on the issue. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Republican leadership is interested in prioritizing this issue.

4) Nominations

Loretta Lynch, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York and likely next Attorney General. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Sure, confirming major presidential nominations isn't too far above the bare minimum a legislative body needs to do to be considered functional. Still, this new Senate will have to decide quickly on two big ones: Ashton Carter for Secretary of Defense and Loretta Lynch for Attorney General. Both nominees have received praise from some Republicans. But others want to use their confirmation hearings to challenge the administration on policy — particularly Obama's immigration executive action, the legality of which is sure to be a contentious subject in Lynch's hearing. The fate of these two nominees will set the tone for many future nomination battles in Obama's final two years. But it may make little difference to the GOP's reception of judicial nominees, which are sure to be contentious no matter what (particularly if a Supreme Court vacancy opens up).

5) Change the handling of sexual assault in the military

Gillibrand military rape press conf

Sarah Plummer, a former U.S. Marine and survivor of sexual assault, speaks alongside Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand at a news conference supporting passage of the Military Justice Improvement Act (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In March of last year, a bill to take military sexual assault prosecutions out of the hands of commanders fell five votes short of beating a Senate filibuster. But the bill's author, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), has redoubled her efforts to win more Republican supporters. Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY) are already on board. And as Rebecca Kaplan of CBS News pointed out, new senators Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) are both supportive of Gillibrand's bill — as is the new majority leader, Mitch McConnell. Amassing 60 votes will still be challenging — particularly because several Democrats oppose the measure. There's also the problem of getting it through the House, though — and President Obama hasn't backed Gillibrand's proposal either.


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Why the AF's chief prosecutor left to fight for sex assault victims

By Kristin Davis , Staff Writer8:29 a.m. EST January 5, 2015


Don Christensen felt like a man unburdened.

On a cold day in early December, the former Air Force chief prosecutor sat at a table inside the tiny Washington office of the victims advocacy group of which he had recently been named president.

He'd traded his dress blues for a charcoal suit, a clean-shaven face for a closely cropped beard. Gone, too, were Christensen's measured remarks on the case that would define his 23-year career as a judge advocate general and put him at odds with the institution to which he'd devoted half his life.

For more than a year, in the rare moments he spoke publicly about his successful November 2012 prosecution of a lieutenant colonel on sexual assault charges — and a three-star general's reversal of the conviction less than four months later — Christensen's words came with a disclaimer. He was speaking for himself, he'd say, and not the Air Force.

But his military service was behind him now, and he was ready to speak freely.

One day earlier, on Capitol Hill a few blocks away, Christensen had joined a bipartisan group of senators who were again calling for a military justice system where prosecutors, instead of commanders, decide whether serious crimes like sexual assault and rape should go to court-martial. Military brass had overwhelmingly bristled at the notion, writing letters and testifying before Congress that commander authority was vital to maintaining good order and discipline within their ranks.

It was his first public appearance as president of Protect Our Defenders. He'd stood next Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., author of the stagnant Military Justice Improvement Act, and listed off his experience as an Air Force defense counsel, prosecutor and judge. He'd described how the current system still allowed sexual predators to operate with near impunity in the military despite a litany of recent changes meant to better protect victims and hold commanders accountable.

But those commanders continued to tilt the balance in favor of the accused, Christensen said. He'd watched it in the now-infamous case of the lieutenant colonel convicted by peers at court-martial, then cleared by a general. He'd seen it in the final sexual assault case he prosecuted as an Air Force JAG.

The newly retired colonel no longer believed he could make a difference fighting for victims on the inside.

Christensen would divide his time between his native South Dakota and Washington and wherever else the new job took him, from speaking engagements — he would catch a plane in a few hours to make a fundraising event in San Francisco — to meeting with lawmakers and helping build on a pro-bono network of attorneys for victims of military sexual assault.

The significance of Christensen's move to the outside was not lost on Gillibrand.

"With his unparalleled experience and knowledge on this issue, Col. Christensen's presence in this debate is extremely meaningful," Gillibrand's spokesman, Glen Caplin, said Jan. 2. "He has a great ability to dispel the myths and spin and explain how things really work. Also, he loves the military deeply, and the fact that after 23 years of service he concluded the only way to fix the system is from the outside because it is so broken speaks loudly."

Unaddressed concerns

Christensen's military service was rooted in tradition. His father was an Air Force navigator during the Vietnam War; his grandfather, an intelligence officer in World War II.

When Christensen began his own military career in July 1991 after earning a law degree from Marquette University Law School in Wisconsin, he was too busy trying to learn the military justice system to think much about whether it had kept up with the times. That introspection came later — and it did not happen all of a sudden.

While most Air Force JAGs move on to various advisory assignments after a few years of trying and defending cases, Christensen remained active in the justice system. He spent four years as a defense counsel, served a stint as a military judge — where he presided over some 100 cases — worked as a chief circuit trial counsel in Europe and, in 2010, became the Air Force's chief prosecutor.

As Christensen's career evolved, so did how he thought about the job he was doing. "It came to a point where I started asking why do we do this, why do we do that."

Not everything made sense. Until recently, an airman's good military character could be used as grounds for acquittal. Generals, not lawyers, decide whether to investigate a case and send it to court-martial. They approve pre-trial agreements and approve or disapprove testimony of an expert witness — all, Christensen said, with little more expertise than a two-hour military justice briefing by a JAG who hasn't been in the courtroom in years.

"I've seen cases where you're delayed by days waiting for a general to make a decision, and you have experts sitting there getting paid almost $3,000 a day. And he's [the general] off doing other general duties and can't be bothered by it. It's a cumbersome system."

If a prosecutor believed there was not enough evidence to support a charge, he or she had to convince a general to drop it.

"That's definitely not fair to the defense," Christensen said. Commanders "have such control over the process."

Then there was the way commanders sometimes treated victims of alleged sexual crimes — siding with and supporting the accused. It bothered him so much, he said, he'd brought it up to his leadership more than once. His complaints "never went anywhere."

When he brought up ways the system might work better, he said, his leadership proved "very resistant. The status quo is just what they wanted. They didn't want to have any change."

Christensen recalled a case he prosecuted years ago in which an airman was charged with raping his daughter. "It was going to be a tough case for us. But she [the victim] was very compelling."

The airman's commander preferred charges against him. Yet when the case went to trial, the same commander sat behind the defendant and brought him water, the prosecutor said. When a not guilty verdict was announced, "this commander leaped out of his chair, both arms in the air, and screamed 'yes!' It was such a spectacle the judge almost held him in contempt," Christensen said.

Such support was not new or unheard of, he said, and it destroyed the work of great commanders who worked hard to remain fair and unbiased.

Overturned conviction

More than two decades inside the system could not have prepared Christensen for the case of former Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a popular F-16 pilot and Aviano Air Base, Italy, inspector general who was accused of sexually assaulting a house guest in March 2012.

When Christensen, by then a colonel, was summoned to Europe to prosecute Wilkerson, he'd been serving as the Air Force chief prosecutor for two years and was trying only a handful of cases. He was also an expert in sexual assault cases, having served on both sides, and this case was not unlike the dozens he'd defended and prosecuted and presided over.

Wilkerson allegedly got into the bed of sleeping house guest Kimberly Hanks, who said she awoke to find the fighter pilot with his hands down her pants and his stunned wife in the doorway. A month before, Christensen had successfully prosecuted another lieutenant colonel for molesting a young boy.

The Aviano staff judge advocate requested Christensen's assistance on the case because of Wilkerson's rank and position, and because the former vice wing commander, a colonel who'd driven Wilkerson and a group of others back to the Wilkerson's home that night, was expected to testify.

Hanks, who would go public after the conviction was overturned, "was an exceptionally credible witness," Christensen told Air Force Times in April 2013. And in cases where there is no physical evidence, the verdict often comes down to the victim's believability.

Hanks, a 49-year-old American physician's assistant who worked at the base hospital, saw a nurse the morning after the ordeal and made a report soon after. Her story, Christensen said, never wavered.

Wilkerson adamantly denied in a recorded interview with investigators that he'd ever left his own bed that night. His wife, Beth, repeated that account on the stand.

A panel of senior officers sided with the victim, convicting Wilkerson of aggravated sexual assault Nov. 2 after a weeklong trial. He was sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the Air Force, stripping him of his retirement.

Christensen figured that was the end of it, barring, of course, any adverse ruling by the appellate court during Wilkerson's likely appeal. But the case never got that far.

On Feb. 26, 2013, Third Air Force commander Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin exercised his power as the convening authority to overturn the verdict and reinstate Wilkerson into the Air Force. The general based the decision in part on his own three-week review of the evidence and, as Franklin would later write in a memo to then-Air Force Secretary Michael Donley by way of explanation, on "the most extensive clemency package request" Franklin and his staff judge advocate had ever seen.

Ninety-one clemency letters — a third of them from current and former commanders and three from general officers — "painted a consistent picture of a person who adored his wife and 9-year-old son, as well as a picture of a long-serving professional Air Force officer," wrote Franklin, who after his decision worked to get Wilkerson promoted and back in the cockpit of the F-16 both of them flew.

Far-reaching fallout

The backlash from Congress and victim advocacy groups — Protect Our Defenders included — was swift. The outcry intensified in June 2013 when the Air Force announced Wilkerson, while married, had fathered a child by a woman other than his wife nearly a decade before.

Four months later, he was reduced to the rank of major and forced to retire from the military. Franklin announced his retirement last January after Air Force officials reinvestigated a sexual assault case he'd declined to prosecute. Because he had not yet held the rank of lieutenant general for three years, he would leave the service as a two-star.

But the impact of the Wilkerson case would have more far-reaching effects — on military justice and on Christensen himself.

"When Franklin did what he did," the retired chief prosecutor said, "that was like a light going [on]."

When outraged lawmakers passed the 2014 defense spending bill, it included fundamental changes to the military justice system. No longer can a commander overturn a court-martial conviction. Cases trigger a civilian review when a prosecutor wants to take a service member to trial but a commander does not. It is a crime to retaliate against a victim. Troops convicted of a sexual assault face mandatory dishonorable discharge. And victims of sexual offenses must have access to their own specially trained attorney who reports to an independent chain of command — a program piloted and popularized in the Air Force through which more than 1,200 airmen have received representation.

Victims who have their own attorneys are much more likely to convert a restricted report to an unrestricted report, the latter of which launches an investigation — and makes it possible to hold the offender accountable. Under a restricted report, victims get access to care but law enforcement is kept out.

Within the Air Force, there were other efforts: the creation of a sexual assault prevention and response office headed by a two-star general and staffed with more than 30 experts at the Pentagon; increased funding and training for first responders, from victim advocates to security forces to investigators; stand-down days, awareness campaigns and sweeps of office spaces for materials degrading to women. Unit climate assessments gauge whether commanders are creating an atmosphere of dignity and respect for all.

"I genuinely believe 98 percent of commanders want to help victims," said Maj. Gen. Gina Grosso, head of the Air Force's SAPR office.

Indeed, Air Force victim surveys show high marks for commanders when it comes to how they are treated, said Col. Chuck Killion, director of the Air Force judiciary. Bad experiences should be used as an opportunity to improve the system, he said, not indict it.

A new report by the Defense Department — released the same week Christensen made his debut on Capitol Hill — show the changes and efforts at every level of the Air Force may be having an impact. About 800 fewer airmen had experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2014 than in 2012, the last time they took the survey. That was about a 25 percent drop for women and a 14 percent drop for men. Meanwhile, reporting of sexual offenses increased by 61 percent — indicating more trust in the system.

Military leaders across the services were careful to say that even one sexual assault is too many, that while encouraged by the latest survey results, there is more work to be done. They listed off more programs to come, programs that would make unit leaders more capable of communicating the importance of prevention and response and putting a dent in retaliation against victims.

Of 2,300 active-duty troops who participated in a Military Times poll, released last month, nearly all said their unit had conducted sexual assault training, though only 48 percent said they believed it was effective.

Still, from the outside, it looked as if all the efforts of the last two years were paying off, that the military services had at last gotten a handle on a crime they had overlooked far too long. Sen. Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat who has supported keeping sexual assault allegations within the chain of command, touted the decline of incidents and rise in reports "exactly the combination we're looking for."

But from Christensen's ringside seat, little had changed. Air Force leaders continued to wield their influence in favor of the accused, he believed.

He pointed to a case earlier this year in which two retired generals — including retired Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz — wrote letters on behalf of a chief master sergeant charged with rape, sodomy, and obtaining sex by threat of force or death. (Schwartz declined to comment for this story.)

An Air Force judge ultimately dismissed the charges against the chief due to a loss of confidence in the prosecution.

"What impact it had on that judge to have a four-star general writing on the accused's behalf — I don't know," Christensen said.

Downward spiral

The final case Christensen would try as an Air Force JAG last April took him to the base where he'd begun his career 23 years earlier — Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.

By then, he'd talked to members of Congress about the Wilkerson case — at their behest, he said. He'd been in contact with Protect Our Defenders after Hanks, the Aviano victim, requested Christensen speak to the group, and he'd been impressed by founder Nancy Parrish, the daughter of a veteran. He'd stated publicly more than once that he did not believe commanders should have the power to overturn a court-martial conviction. And, in February, he'd confronted Franklin after the two of them ended up on the same U.S.-bound plane from Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

Christensen had taken a hop across the Atlantic to attend the promotion ceremony of his co-counsel on the Wilkerson case and to do some sight-seeing with his son. Franklin was on his way home, having recently announced his retirement in the wake of the latest uproar over his decision not to send an airman accused of sexual assault to court-martial.

After clearing customs in Baltimore, Christensen said, he asked Franklin for a minute of his time. Franklin obliged.

"Sir, you blew it," Christensen recalled himself saying. "There was no doubt Wilkerson was guilty. Everything you said in the memo was wrong. If you'd just called me, I could have walked you through everything."

Franklin said he didn't know he was allowed to call the chief prosecutor. Christensen told him that he was.

Franklin said Wilkerson had a lot of support, that an Air Force general had called into question the victim's credibility.

"He had the support of his friends," Christensen responded. "That's what we expect friends to do. I don't go into court trying to convince the accused's friends he's guilty."

"Sir," the prosecutor continued, "this has impacted a lot of people's lives. A lot of people are paying a price."

Franklin said that he was one of them; the ordeal had cost him a rank.

Franklin declined to comment for this story, stating in an email that it would be inappropriate as a former court-martial convening authority to speak in the media on any case in which he'd played a role.

Christensen believes his forceful position on the Wilkerson case and his sharp criticism of the way in which the Air Force handled sexual assault cases hurt his career. A month after the airport meeting with Franklin, Christensen said, he received a downgraded performance report from his commander in what he considered another indication he was no longer wanted in the Air Force.

Prior to Wilkerson, he'd been active in the Air Force JAG office about the best way forward in the fight against sexual assault. "That engagement started drying up," he said. And though Christensen was the chief prosecutor for the Air Force, he was given no speaking role at a worldwide staff judge advocate sexual assault conference in December 2013.

"I wasn't spouting the company line that commanders are wonderful and should be in charge," Christensen said.

Soon after the downgraded performance report, he learned he was being reassigned to the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals.

"I did not look at that as a good assignment," he said. "I would sum up the service courts this way: They have a lot of great judges — some of these guys are best friends of mine — but it is not taken seriously by Air Force leadership."

When asked about the impact the assignment may have on a JAG's career, Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Karns said appeals court judges have gone on to some of the top jobs in Air Force justice. "There is no one path to a successful military career," he said. "Doing the best you can in the position you are asked to serve is success in itself."

Christensen said there would be little, meaningful work he could do on the appeals court for at least a year. He'd have to recuse himself from any case he'd worked on as chief prosecutor — and that was a lot. "It was time for me to go."

His final case

But first, there was the final case at Ellsworth. To Christensen, it would demonstrate much of what was wrong with military justice, why serious crimes like sexual assault should be handled by an independent prosecutor rather than a commander.

The Air Force, in its monthly release of sexual assault convictions — another initiative begun by the service in 2013 to hold offenders accountable — provided a short synopsis of the case of Capt. David Brooks:

Early on the morning of April 13, 2013, after a night of socializing with other officers from the squadron, the victim awoke on Brooks' couch to find him touching her private parts.

Both the victim and the accused, as well as other officers from the squadron — including squadron commander Lt. Col. Stuart Newberry — had taken part in a pub crawl that had begun at a strip club, Christensen said. "Like a lot of our victims, she struggles with what to do. Then she reports it."

In response, Newberry gave the victim a no-contact order, "which I've never seen in my career," the prosecutor said. "We're not worried about the victim going after the accused. We're worried about the accused going after the victim."

Newberry testified on Brooks' behalf at court-martial, where a panel in April found the captain guilty of abusive sexual contact and sentenced him to 45 days in jail and a reprimand. Newberry testified again at Brooks' discharge board, as did at least half a dozen squadron mates, one of whom called Brooks "the best officer" he knows, said Christensen.

Brooks was ultimately kicked out of the Air Force. Newberry, who declined to comment for this story, later left Ellsworth for a one-year fellowship at Harvard — but not, Christensen said, before issuing the victim performance feedback telling her she was too emotional.

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Air Force captain dissents from military sex assault policy, and commanders take notice

By Craig Whitlock December 30, 2014

U.S. Air Force Capt. Maribel Jarzabek briefed victim advocates in August at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey on the legal rights of sexual assault victims. (Courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

With just a few weeks left in her Air Force career, Capt. Maribel Jarzabek decided to vent a little. She posted a few messages on a U.S. senator’s Facebook page, supporting the lawmaker’s push to overhaul the military justice system for sexual-assault cases.

Not long afterward, Jarzabek received an e-mail from a higher-ranking officer, informing her that she was under criminal investigation. The allegations? That she had wrongfully advocated “a partisan political cause” and expressed opinions online that could undermine public confidence in the Air Force.

Jarzabek is a military lawyer assigned as part of a new program to represent victims of sexual assault. Although the Defense Department has promoted the program as a success story and part of a broader campaign to crack down on sex crimes within the armed forces, Jarzabek had grown disillusioned and said she felt the Air Force was papering over deeper problems.

“Changes are needed, and it’s time that the public knew about the military’s true dirty little secrets!” she wrote Dec. 2 in a long comment posted on the Facebook page of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

Under military regulations, uniformed personnel are prohibited from publicly participating in overt political causes. Appearing at a rally in uniform or endorsing a candidate is forbidden.

In her Facebook posts, Jarzabek identified herself as an active-duty Air Force lawyer, which apparently is what drew the attention of her superiors and prompted the investigation.

On Dec. 23, after a brief investigation, Jarzabek said she was notified by a commander that she had been found guilty of the allegations. The punishment was decidedly mild: She was given “verbal counseling,” or a warning not to do it again.

Although the outcome won’t appear as a black mark on her official military record, Jarzabek called the investigation a thinly veiled attempt to retaliate against her for advocating too strongly for sexual-assault victims. In an interview, she also questioned the timing, noting that her departure from the service was imminent. After a five-year career, Wednesday is her last day in the Air Force.

“I told the truth,” said Jarzabek, 34, who is stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. “I do believe they are trying to silence me and also send a message to other special-victim counsels who agree with me but are afraid to speak up.”

Air Force Col. Kristine Kijek, the commander who upheld the allegations against Jarzabek, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment. Lt. Col. Christopher Karns, an Air Force spokesman at the Pentagon, said he could not discuss details of Jarzabek’s case because of privacy restrictions.

In a statement, Karns said the Air Force “is strongly committed to combating sexual assault” and has “actively listened to feedback and suggestions concerning military justice improvements.”

He said any Air Force members who — like Jarzabek — believe that they have been retaliated against have the right to file a complaint with the Defense Department’s inspector general. Jarzabek said she decided not to go that route because such cases typically “go nowhere.”

The military’s record of investigating and prosecuting sexual ­assault cases has been a sensitive subject at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress and President Obama have demanded reforms amid a surge in reported incidents of rape and sexual abuse.

Military commanders have adopted a host of administrative and legal changes and have made clear to their troops that the issue is a top priority. But some lawmakers have been pressing for more radical changes.

Foremost has been a bill introduced by Gillibrand that would strip commanders of the authority to oversee investigations into sexual assaults and other serious crimes, giving those powers to uniformed prosecutors. Pentagon leaders have lobbied heavily against her proposal, saying it would undermine commanders and diminish their ability to maintain order and discipline.

A majority of senators voted in favor of Gillibrand’s measure in March, but the bill fell five votes short of the 60 necessary to clear a procedural hurdle. Gillibrand had been pushing for another vote in early December when Jarzabek posted her supportive comments on the senator’s Facebook page.

“I admire her bravery in speaking her mind, because I have heard from many other  active-duty service members who have encouraged me privately to keep moving forward but are afraid to say it publicly out of fear of retribution or retaliation,” Gillibrand said in a written statement. “I think the message being sent here is very clear — unless you are going to toe the company line, shut up, or we will punish you.”

Jarzabek and her supporters said she had raised her superiors’ hackles previously by zealously advocating for sexual-assault victims. She was a key player in a case that led to the retirement of a three-star general a year ago after he was criticized for his oversight of an investigation of a rape suspect.

Don Christensen, a former chief prosecutor in the Air Force, now serves as president of the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, which backs Gillibrand’s bill. He said the criminal investigation into Jarzabek would resonate within Air Force legal circles.

“It’s clear that if you support the current system and you do so publicly, then that’s something that’s considered praiseworthy and can get you promoted,” he said. “But if you oppose it and say so, you’ll get criminally prosecuted.”

An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the role played by Col. Kristine Kijek. She was the commander who found Jarzabek guilty of the allegations but was not the investigating officer.

Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.
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YEAR IN REVIEW 2014 -- Sex assault in the military: debated statistics, scandal and a failed bill

By Nancy Montgomery

Stars and Stripes
Published: December 23, 2014
Brig Gen. Jeff Sinclair arrives to the Fort Bragg courthouse, for his sentencing hearing, Wednesday, March 19, 2014, in Fort Bragg, N.C. Sinclair, who was accused of sexually assaulting a subordinate, plead guilty to lesser charges in a plea deal reached with government prosecutors.

Hardly a week went by in 2014 when sexual assault in the military didn’t make the news.

The year was bracketed by Congressional efforts to take prosecutorial authority in such cases from commanders and give it to trained, independent prosecutors.

In December, the Pentagon provided a progress report on sexual assault prevention President Barack Obama had ordered last year, which concluded there had been significant progress toward dealing with sexual assault in the ranks.

Here’s a recap of key developments:

In February, the Army announced it had removed nearly 600 soldiers serving as sexual-assault-response coordinators, recruiters and drill instructors for infractions in their records ranging from sexual assault to incidents of drunken driving.

In March, a bill introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to strip commanders of disposition authority in sexual assault cases — something military officials oppose — failed by five votes to break a filibuster led by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. In December, Gillibrand and supporters, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., were trying again to pass the measure.

They cited the Pentagon’s December progress report showing that nearly two-thirds of those who reported a sexual assault said they faced retaliation, adverse career actions and punishment, despite retaliation being criminalized.

But Defense Department officials focused on a different set of statistics in the report. Even as the total number of sexual assaults incidents, from abusive contact to rape, had declined — to 19,000 from an estimated 26,000 in a 2012 anonymous survey — more people were reporting their assaults to authorities, with nearly 6,000 reports in the past year.

Critics pointed out that incident rates, though lower than in 2012, were the same as in 2010, before many reforms had been made. They noted that more people were filing confidential reports, under which alleged perpetrators couldn’t be prosecuted, and that this showed a lack of confidence in the system.

Several high-ranking officers retired last year in the wake of sexual misconduct cases:

In January, the Third Air Force commander, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, announced his retirement after questions were raised about his handling of a rape case at Aviano Air Base, Italy. Franklin, who in 2013 dismissed a fighter pilot’s sexual assault conviction and so hastened a host of changes to the military justice system, said he was retiring “for the good of this command and the Air Force.”

In June, the Army announced that disgraced Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, who had gone to trial on sodomy charges, would retire as a lieutenant colonel, three months after he pleaded guilty to an affair with a subordinate officer and maltreatment of the woman.

Sinclair was sentenced on the same day that another high-profile sexual assault prosecution ended with an acquittal.

In that case, a military judge acquitted a former Navy Academy football player of sexually assaulting a classmate .

Lt. Col. Jay Morse, who’d been the Army’s top special victims prosecutor, was reprimanded in June after an investigation into an allegation he’d groped a captain at a 2011 conference on sex crimes.

The Air Force’s chief prosecutor, who had prosecuted the case against Wilkerson also retired. Col. Don Christensen, considered the service’s best litigator, said Air Force officials had retaliated against him for failing to back Franklin’s decision, just as he said he’d seen commanders retaliate against victims for reporting their assaults.

Christensen joined the victim-advocacy group Protect Our Defenders as the organization’s president.

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Surviving Rape in the Military

By Evelyn Nieves Dec. 17, 2014

The issue of sexual assault in the military makes the news periodically, usually in articles with mouth-dropping statistics and official outrage.

Mary F. Calvert read such an article. It estimated that while 26,000 rapes and sexual assaults took place in the armed forces in 2012, only one in seven victims reported the attack and only one in 10 of those cases went to trial.

But Ms. Calvert, a photojournalist who documents gender-based human rights issues, often in the developing world, could not let the story go.

“Even though I’ve taught a workshop for military photographers for 17 years,” she said, “I had no idea that this was happening in my backyard. The numbers blew me away.”

She had previously done a project on rape as a tool of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rebel groups were systematically raping thousands of women. “And, perhaps worst of all,” she recalled, “the Congolese National Army committed about a third of the rapes. The story had a huge impact on me.”

She knew she had to explore this issue at home in a way that would reach the public consciousness. So she decided to find survivors of what is officially called military sexual trauma and tell their stories.

Jennifer Norris said she was drugged and raped by her recruiter after joining the Air Force when she was 21. She sat with her service dog, Onyx, at a fellow military rape survivor's home in Biloxi, Miss.

Credit: Mary F. Calvert

Jennifer Norris said she was drugged and raped by her recruiter after joining the Air Force when she was 21. She sat with her service dog, Onyx, at a fellow military rape survivor's home in Biloxi, Miss.

Ms. Calvert, a former staff photographer for The Washington Times, found her first subjects close to home, on Capitol Hill. She attended a hearing on military sexual trauma — M.S.T. — in a nearly empty hearing room. There she met Jennifer Norris, who was testifying that her Air Force recruiter had raped her.

“Just like that,” Ms. Calvert said, “doors began to open. I photographed one of the women I met at a Senate hearing at her home in Virginia. Jessica Hinves was an Air Force fighter jet mechanic who lost her career when she reported being raped by a man in her squadron. Jess and Jen referred me to other M.S.T. survivors, and it just went on from there.”

After receiving the Canon Female Photojournalist Award, along with 8,000 euros, at the Visa Pour l’Image photography festival in Perpignan, France in September 2013 for this project, Ms. Calvert began traveling around the United States, documenting survivors. They were everywhere, in every branch of the military.

Their stories were horrifying.

Survivors who reported on their assaults say they have been harassed, shunned, ridiculed, drummed out of their regiments. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance abuse. Many can no longer hold a job, even years after their assaults. Some cling to therapy dogs.

Whole families are affected. Ms. Calvert photographed Gary Noling of Alliance, Ohio, devastated after his daughter, Carri Goodwin, drank herself to death five days after she went home with a bad conduct discharge – having endured severe retaliation, she said, for reporting her rape to her Marine commander.

One survivor still on active duty in the Army, Specialist Natasha Schuette, let Ms. Calvert photograph her in uniform. Her assailant who assaulted her and several other soldiers is now in prison, a rare occurrence in the military, where such assaults are usually treated as breaches of conduct, not criminal offenses.

Jessica Hinves was an Air Force fighter jet mechanic when she said she was raped by a member of her squadron at Lackland Air Force Base. She held her baby, Marley, at her home in Hampton, Va.

Credit: Mary F. Calvert

Jessica Hinves was an Air Force fighter jet mechanic when she said she was raped by a member of her squadron at Lackland Air Force Base. She held her baby, Marley, at her home in Hampton, Va.

While the Army honored Specialist Schuette for her courage in reporting her assault, she remains a loner, Ms. Calvert said. “I attempted to get permission from the Army to photograph her at work,” Ms. Calvert said, “but my request has been denied several times. In fact, all of my requests to photograph sexual assault prevention trainings have been denied or ignored and my website is even blocked on at least two different Air Force bases in the U.S.”

Still, sexual assaults in the military made the news again recently. On Dec. 3, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that sexual assault reports were up 8 percent over 2013. The report also estimated the number of cases at 19,000, down from 26,000 in 2012. Mr. Hagel said that meant the military was making progress in its handling of sexual assault cases.

A year and a half into reporting this story, Ms. Calvert said, she believes the United States military is trying to stem the crisis. But it is still a crisis. She has received the 2014 Alexia Foundation Women’s Initiative Grant for the next part of this project, documenting homeless female veterans to show the downward spiral that M.S.T. survivors often face. She also wants to document male survivors of sexual assault.

“I hope,” she said, “that I can do my part to keep this issue at the top of our very finicky news cycle.”


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Critics say progress on military sex assaults is an illusion

Reports up, but few lead to prosecutions

December 13, 2014 Updated: December 13, 2014 10:14pm

In its latest report of sexual assaults, the Pentagon says it has made progress in reducing the problem, but figures from an independent survey of troops raised questions about the improvements, particularly in the Marine Corps.

The Marines reported that the number of troops who said they were victims of sexual misconduct dropped by about 1,000 over the past two years, while victims declining to use the military justice system also fell, from 16 percent in 2011 to 8 percent this year.

But a survey included in the report also revealed that women in the Marines were more at risk, with one in four saying they had been sexually harassed or worked in a sexually hostile environment. Nearly 8 percent of female Marines said they had been sexually assaulted in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30.

That was a higher level of harassment and assaults than in the Navy, Army and Air Force.

The survey also showed more than 4 percent of women in the Marines, a force with only 14,129 females, said they had been raped, also higher than in the other armed services.

Laura Seal, a Defense Department spokeswoman, said a future Rand survey for the military could show such demographic factors as age and educational level help explain the differences between the services.

But a veteran Marine boiled the trouble down to biology and his service’s warrior culture.

“You have a young, vigorous military service, and they see themselves as fighters and lovers and, amongst other things, they don’t think that there should be women with them because they’re out there to fight and they think they’re diminished by having women in their vigorous organization,” retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor said.

The controversy over military sexual assaults has raged since more than 30 basic training instructors were accused of sexual misconduct between 2011 and 2013 at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.

A series of incidents there and at other domestic and overseas bases recently renewed debate on a problem that has roiled the Pentagon since the 1991 Navy Tailhook scandal, in which at least 83 women were assaulted by drunken male Marine and Navy aviators at a convention.

Clashing statistics

In releasing the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response report two weeks ago, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sparked a new clash on Capitol Hill over efforts to overhaul a key part of military law.

He touted the report as proof of progress, but it was a mixed bag that gave ammunition to activists determined to prevail in an increasingly bitter standoff over reforms.

The Pentagon said cases had fallen from an estimated 26,000 in 2012 to 19,000 this year and that victims reporting to authorities had jumped 50 percent over 2012.

Overall, fewer women reported having unwanted sexual contact and being sexually harassed from two years ago, but the percentage of men surveyed was virtually unchanged.

A greater number of troops were court-martialed in 2014 and more investigations were completed, but the payoff appeared to be slim — 17 fewer convictions and 23 more acquittals.

Hagel’s report also showed the percentage of victims across the services who refused to be involved in the military justice system rose for the first time after four straight years of decline.

Critics were troubled by figures that showed 62 percent of female troops faced retaliation after they reported a sexual assault — a figure unchanged from two years ago despite a new law that makes retribution illegal.

“I’m very disappointed,” Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said in an interview. “The (Defense Department), they want to give something to the president to say, 'Mission accomplished,’ and so they make a fancy chart and they say, 'Rapes down, reports up!’”

“But when you actually study it, you see instances of reporting where you’re willing to disclose your name and proceed to trial, and proceed to an investigation, actually went down,” she said.

Gillibrand and victims long have contended that a deep distrust of the legal system is hampering prosecutions, and that nothing has changed.

Greg Jacob, policy director for Service Women’s Action Network, noted that the number of cases that could not be prosecuted this year went up because victims refused to cooperate.

“Clearly all these numbers indicate the climate isn’t safe,” Jacob said.

Not everyone agrees.

“In the past, many of these reports would not have been made because of an ignorance of the fact that harassment is indeed an offense, and others because of a lack of confidence in the reporting process,” said retired Army lawyer Geoffrey Corn, a professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston.

“I think the numbers are encouraging,” said Washington attorney Roger Canaff, a former civilian special victims’ prosecutor who helped the Army with sexual-assault cases. “I am reasonably confident that the rise in reports represents not a rise in incidents but far more likely a rise in reporting because victims feel more empowered and more supported.”

Marines report progress

Conflicting numbers in the report only served to widen the fault lines in the debate, and that was especially the case with the Marines, a small, male-dominant force that remains the only branch to segregate its recruits by gender in basic training.

The Marines pointed to a drop in unwanted sexual contact among women from 10 percent in 2012 to 8 percent this year, but the mark nonetheless was the highest of any service branch.

The corps also said it has had an 89 percent increase in reports over the past two years, to 855 from 453 in 2013, and a rise in charges filed and cases brought to trial.

But more than 27 percent of female marines said they suffered sexual harassment and worked in a sexually hostile environment.

The Navy, where women make up about 17 percent of the force, said reporting was up, with one in five victims coming forward in 2014 compared with one in 17 two years ago.

No one can say for sure why the Marines have a larger problem then the other services.

“The percent differences aren't directly due to the small number of women in the Marines,” University of Maryland military sociologist David Segal said. “My guess, but it’s only a guess, is that both the assault incidence and the small number are reflections of the culture of the corps.”

Jacob spent 10 years in the Marines as an enlistee and officer in the infantry. Like Trainor, who fought in Korea and Vietnam, he believes warrior ethos in the corps is a factor in this year’s numbers.

“In the Marine Corps, this warrior culture is basically equated with men, this hyper-masculine culture, and it shouldn’t be because women are able to do the same jobs,” Jacob said, adding that females have proved themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“So there’s this notion that masculine equals warrior, that equals strength, therefore if you’re an other, if you’re a woman in this case, then you’re not masculine, therefore you’re basically equated to weakness,” he added.

Retired Col. Don Christensen, president of Protect our Defenders and a former prosecutor, defense attorney and judge in the Air Force, said he believed his service’s lower numbers in the military survey were linked to “higher-caliber recruits” and a culture more inclusive of women.

“It’s a cultural thing. Even though I think as an institution we value people more, we still have definitely pockets of misogyny throughout the Air Force; the other services do, too,” he said.

Spotlight on military justice

Whether reports of assaults are up because of greater confidence in a system that has undergone tremendous change isn’t clear.

More than three-dozen initiatives have been put in place by Hagel and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in the past three years to improve reporting and increase prosecutions.

“I think it’s just as likely that … the women are coming forward more because they know that right now the spotlight of Congress is on this, the spotlight of the media is on this, and so I would anticipate that would embolden someone to come forward,” Christensen said.

On Friday, Gillibrand failed again to pass a bill that would remove the authority of commanders to decide on prosecutions — a step she and other reformers say is the only way to give victims confidence the system will work.

Some reforms have been made. One will take away the right of troops charged in sexual-assault trials to invoke the “good-soldier” defense in their sentencing. A co-sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, said ending the defense would ensure “defendants are prosecuted based on the evidence and nothing else.”

But Baltimore attorney Susan Burke, a victim advocate, said there is enough evidence to jettison the role commanders have played in the legal system since the birth of the Army.

“That data establishes that the underlying military judicial system remains broken. It simply does not work. Alone among 52 judicial systems, the military allows people with personal bias, their own career interests, to exercise judicial authority,” she said.

“A person who is a victim of crime in the civilian community doesn’t go to his or her boss to complain about an assault committed by a co-worker,” Yale Law School visiting lecturer Eugene Fidell said, calling the system anachronistic.

“They go to the district attorney who doesn’t have a horse in the race, who is going to be indifferent to the identity of the alleged perpetrator,” added Fidell, who served on a Pentagon board that studied military justice in combat zones. “That’s a difference, and you can never get past that difference.”

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Military Sexual Assault Unresolved


By  DEC. 7, 2014

The surest measure of the scale of the problem of sexual assault in the military — and the failure of the Pentagon and Congress to deal with it — is that the Defense Department thinks it has really achieved something because the total number of rapes and other sexual assaults decreased to 19,000 in 2014 from about 26,000 in 2012.

That is certainly a large drop, which was discovered by an anonymous survey asking men and women in the military if they had experienced unwanted sexual contact including rape. Also, the number of people who reported a sexual assault to military authorities increased, to 5,983 for this fiscal year from 5,518 the year before.

“The importance of this upward trend in reporting cannot be overstated,” the Pentagon said.

Actually, it can be and it is overstated. The total number of assaults is too high by orders of magnitude and the incidence of reporting is far too low. Only a very small fraction of those who experience assaults are reporting them, and an even smaller number are sufficiently confident of their fair treatment in the military justice system to actually pursue an official investigation. As usual, only a tiny number of the complaints resulted in a conviction.

One of the most devastating findings — which the Pentagon, to its credit, expressed concern about — was that nearly two-thirds of those who said they reported an assault also said they experienced some form of retaliation. That is the same as the previous year, despite a new law making retaliation a punishable offense.

The latest accounting of sexual assault in the military coincides with a renewed push in Congress led by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, with welcome help from Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky on the far right, to fix a key flaw in the military structure that thwarts evenhanded justice and contributes to the abysmally low prosecution rate. Under military law, commanding officers with built-in conflicts of interest and scant legal expertise have the power to decide which sexual assault cases to investigate and bring to courts-martial.

In March, the Senate defeated Ms. Gillibrand’s proposal to remove commanders’ authority to make prosecutorial decisions and put them in the hands of trained and independent prosecutors outside the chain of command. That measure won 55 votes, which was shy of the 60 needed to break a filibuster led by Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri.

With the backing of Mr. Paul and Mr. Cruz, Ms. Gillibrand is seeking another vote on the measure, either as an amendment to the military authorization bill facing a likely Senate vote this week or as a free-standing bill.

Time is running out in the lame-duck session, and defeating a filibuster would be a challenge. But transforming the culture of the military to deal with the problem of sexual assaults is an important matter of justice and national security. It should be possible for congressional leaders to find a way to allow a vote without undue disruption of other necessary work.

This issue should certainly be aired during hearings on the nomination of Ashton Carter to replace Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense.

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AP sources: Military sex assault reports up 8 percent

 In May, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declared sexual assaults as a "clear threat" to service members and he ordered a number of new initiatives. | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The number of sexual assaults reported by military service members rose again this year, with an increase of 8 percent, officials told The Associated Press.

Details set for release Thursday and a new anonymous survey suggests victims are becoming far more willing to file complaints than in years past, they said.

The officials said there were nearly 6,000 victims of reported assaults in 2014, compared with just over 5,500 last year. The Pentagon changed its method of accounting for the assaults this year, and now each victim counts for one report.

Using last year's accounting methods, there were roughly 5,400 sexual assaults reported as of the end of the 2014 fiscal year on Sept. 30, compared with a little more than 5,000 last year. That increase comes on the heels of an unprecedented 50 percent spike in reporting in the previous year.

Based on those numbers, and the anonymous survey conducted by the Rand Corp., officials said that about 1 in every 4 victims filed a report this year, in sharp contrast to 2012, when only about 1 in every 10 military victims came forward.

Two years ago, the anonymous survey conducted by the Defense Department found that about 26,000 services members said they had been the victim of unwanted sexual contact — a number that stunned officials and outraged lawmakers, triggering a barrage of congressional hearings and legislative changes.

This year, that number dropped to about 19,000 — including about 10,500 men and 8,500 women — which officials said suggested that there was a trend of sexual assaults declining.

Officials discussed the latest reports on condition of anonymity because the survey results and sexual assault statistics have not been publicly released. Many of the numbers are preliminary and could change a bit as the reports are finalized.

Officials said the decision to change the accounting system to have a report for every victim, rather than one report for an incident that could have multiple victims, would provide greater accuracy. Using that system, there were 3,604 victims in 2012, 5,518 in 2013, and 5,983 in 2014.

Defense officials discussed the results with the White House on Tuesday and were expected to release the reports publicly on Thursday.

The reports come as Congress continues to press for an overhaul of the military justice system to change the way that sexual assault cases are handled. Lawmakers complain that the Pentagon has not done enough to combat sexual assault across the military and make it easier and more acceptable for victims to report harassment and assaults.

Victims had complained that they were not comfortable going to commanders to report assaults, particularly in the stern military culture that emphasizes rank, loyalty and strength.

In fact, one of the ongoing problems highlighted in the new survey is that more than 60 percent of the women who said they reported some type of unwanted sexual contact complained they also experienced retaliation. Most said they felt social backlash from co-workers or other service members.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a leading advocate for improvements in protecting victims of sexual assault, pointed to the retaliation figures as troubling.

"For a year now we have heard how the reforms in the previous defense bill were going to protect victims, and make retaliation a crime," she said. "It should be a screaming red flag to everyone when 62 percent of those who say they reported a crime were retaliated against — nearly two-thirds — the exact same number as last year."

Under fire from Congress, Pentagon leaders and the White House, the military services have launched programs to encourage reporting, provide better care for victims, step up prosecutions and urge troops to intervene when they see others in threatening situations.

"Pending the report's public release tomorrow, assuming news accounts are correct — reporting of assaults being up and incidents of assault being down are exactly the combination we're looking for. I'm sure there's more work to do, and I'm anxious to hear how victims feel about the services and support offered to them when they report an assault," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

In May, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declared sexual assaults as a "clear threat" to service members and he ordered a number of new initiatives, including the review of alcohol sales and policies. He said the review must address the risks of alcohol being used as a tool by predators to ply a victim with drinks before attacking.

According to a Pentagon survey, some of that may be taking hold. Officials said an overwhelming majority of those who filled out the survey said they took action to prevent an assault when they saw a risky situation.

The services also created hotlines, plastering phone numbers and contact information for sexual assault prevention officers across military bases, including inside the doors of bathroom stalls. And they expanded sexual assault prevention training, hired victims' advocates and response coordinators, and have tried to curtail drinking, which is often a factor in assaults.


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The Military’s Rough Justice on Sexual Assault

By  NOV. 26, 2014

Kris, the only woman among 70 aviators in her squadron, was assaulted by another officer.

CreditAlec Soth/Magnum, for The New York Times

Col. Don Christensen, the chief prosecutor of the United States Air Force, sat in economy class on a flight to Venice and studied the folder of the sexual-assault case that would ultimately end his career. It was August 2012, and he was en route to Aviano Air Base to try a court-martial. Looking over the case, he could see why the judge advocate general, or JAG, at the base had requested him. Christensen had prosecuted more sexual-assault courts-martial than any other lawyer in the Air Force, and this case called for someone with experience. There would most likely be generals testifying. The accused himself was a senior officer. Even Christensen had seldom handled cases involving men of high rank. There was a simple reason for this: Victims were reluctant to report such officers, who enjoyed their own set of rules in the military justice system.

The officer in question was Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, Aviano’s inspector general and a highly regarded F-16 fighter pilot. Five months before, following a U.S.O. concert at the base, Wilkerson, who was 43, and his wife, Beth, hosted a small party at their house. One guest, a 48-year-old civilian named Kim Hanks, was stranded without a ride home. She accepted the Wilkersons’ offer to stay in their guest bedroom. According to Hanks, she was dead asleep at 3 in the morning when she felt a sudden discomfort. Wilkerson was in bed with her, pawing at her body, digitally penetrating her. She was struggling with him when someone appeared in the doorway. It was Beth Wilkerson. “Get the hell out of my house,” the wife told the guest. Hanks scrambled out of the house and into the darkness without her shoes.

THE CIVILIAN | Kim Hanks's assailant was found guilty, but the verdict was overturned by his general.CreditDru Donovan for The New York Times

Thumbing through the folder’s contents, Christensen reviewed Hanks’s written statement. There didn’t appear to be anything obvious that would lead him to question her integrity. A physician assistant at the base, she had met the Wilkersons only that evening and had no reason to be defaming the pilot. Christensen found her credible and suspected that Wilkerson and his wife had not told investigators the truth about what happened that night. The prosecutor studied the transcript of the pilot’s videotaped interview with Air Force investigators, in which he insisted he never left his own bedroom. The prosecutor also had the results of Wilkerson’s polygraph, which he failed. As with most sexual assaults, there was no physical evidence to buttress the case against Wilkerson. Unlike most such cases, however, there was a witness: Wilkerson’s wife. Christensen read the statement Beth gave to the investigators. He knew that she would be the key to the case. After all, she had only one reason to be untruthful: to cover up her husband’s guilt.

Christensen was 51, very tall and bald, an intimidating presence with a raspy voice. But he possessed a shy, boyish smile and a soft handshake that suggested a self-consciousness about his own strength. He was a sixth-generation military man; his great-great-grandfather survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In 1991, Christensen began his own military career as a lawyer at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, 30 miles from where he grew up on a dairy farm. Though strippers no longer entertained at the officers’ club — as had been the case when Christensen’s father served at Ellsworth — at the time Christensen began there, it was still legal in the military to rape your wife. That year, 1991, was also when dozens of women reported that they were sexually assaulted by more than 100 Marines and Navy men at the Tailhook Symposium in Las Vegas, but the airmen at Ellsworth ridiculed the allegations as a tale trumped up by a bunch of female complainers.

Christensen’s early experience in a military courtroom was primarily as a defense attorney, with most of his early cases involving drug possession or use. During that time, he also represented nine men accused of rape. He won acquittals for six of them — the other three cases were thrown out before trial. Christensen developed an expertise in unraveling a victim’s testimony by, among other things, questioning her demeanor before and after the assault. He kept to himself how distasteful he found these moments — how he imagined taking the women aside after the whole thing was over and whispering, I believe you.

But his obligation was to his clients, and so he did what professional ethics demanded of him. The Air Force’s prosecutors and judges were inexperienced — moving on to other areas of the law after a few years — and seldom objected to Christensen’s line of questioning. The jury members, usually men of senior rank, had little sense of the counterintuitive behavior that victims often display. How she might go back to the house where a man attacked her to retrieve her sunglasses, so that he could not hold onto something of hers. How she might still talk to her attacker on the base, even with a smile, so as not to damage her military career. How her heart rate might have been normal during the medical examination following the assault, because, well, the body sometimes behaves strangely. Consistently he exploited the jurors’ ignorance on such matters to win acquittals of men he often suspected of being sexual predators.

Word began to spread: If you were caught assaulting a woman, your best hope was to request Don Christensen as your defense counsel. After one not-guilty verdict, the defendant, a huge man, wrapped Christensen in a bear hug and lifted the 6-foot-3 lawyer off the ground. Another soldier he set free vowed on the spot that he would be sending Christensen a Christmas card every year. The lawyer preferred to view his courtroom victories as testaments to his technical and persuasive skills rather than as possible miscarriages of justice — though his wife, Debbie, would tweak his conscience by asking: “Good for you. But what about her?”

Christensen often dwelled on the same question, and when the opportunity came in 2000 to switch sides, he took it. As a prosecutor, at Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait, Christensen immediately felt a weight on his conscience slip away. Though his new job would include court-martialing thieves, drug dealers and murderers, he became especially drawn to cases involving men who had forced themselves on women (and occasionally men) they usually outranked without fear of retribution. Christensen proved to be an empathetic advocate for the women he once sought to defeat. “You have to gain the trust of the victim in order for them to be comfortable telling you the facts of the case and retelling them on the stand,” an Air Force lawyer who has worked with Christensen (and insisted he not be identified, for fear that it might jeopardize his career) told me. “Any lawyer can know the forensics. What you can’t get out of a book is how you interact with a victim. I learned by watching how he treated them.”

Over the next 12 years, Christensen personally tried roughly 40 sexual-assault cases and supervised the prosecution of another 300. His decision to focus on sex crimes was unconventional in the military. A JAG was expected to be a generalist — to learn about environmental and labor law, about contracts and medical malpractice claims — and to spend only a few years trying cases. But Christensen liked the challenge of helping victims who had no one else in their corner. He knew the base commanders often did not have their best interests at heart. Instead commanders worried that a court-martial could lead to the loss of a prized fighter pilot. It could create turmoil at the base and produce a blemish on their own records. These pressures, Christensen had come to learn, all conspired to upset the scales of justice. Time after time, he witnessed commanders demonstrating their support for the accused by sitting behind him in the courtroom; in one case, after a pilot was found not guilty of rape, the commander leapt from his perch and yelled, “Yeah!” Commanders selected the jury, which sometimes issued sentences far lighter than those meted out in civilian courtrooms. He saw one commander withdraw an airtight rape case days before trial, without explanation. He saw another commander testify at sentencing that the noncommissioned officer who had just been convicted of sexually molesting his daughter, a 13-year-old with a developmental disability, was nonetheless of great value to the unit and should therefore be retained. The judge granted his request.

And now Don Christensen would be trying to persuade a jury that a popular lieutenant colonel had sexually assaulted a houseguest and that his wife was covering for him. Still, the prosecutor was confident. When it came down to it, someone had to be lying, and he believed he could show that it wasn’t Kim Hanks.

After arriving in Italy the next morning, Christensen met with Hanks at the legal office in Aviano. She was calm and poised. She had reported the crime immediately and would be satisfied to see Wilkerson dishonorably discharged from the Air Force. Because Hanks was a civilian — as fully half of all victims of military sexual assaults are — Christensen explained how the military legal process worked. The case had already been referred for prosecution by Craig Franklin, a three-star general stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany who was the so-called convening authority over judicial matters at Aviano. In a couple of days, there would be a pretrial, called an Article 32 hearing, in which Hanks and others would testify and Christensen would make the case to the investigating officer that there was sufficient evidence to warrant a court-martial. Assuming the investigating officer and then General Franklin concurred, the case would go to trial. At the court-martial, Colonel Wilkerson would be present with his military counsel and a civilian defense lawyer, if he had the money (which he did). Hanks, who did not hire a civilian lawyer, was not entitled to military counsel — Christensen represented the government, not Hanks, and could not offer her legal advice. The jury members would be ranking officers selected by General Franklin. The court-martial itself would proceed more or less as a civilian trial would, but with two exceptions. First, the jurors were free to ask questions of the witnesses. And second, only two-thirds of their votes were needed for a conviction.

Christensen and his two deputies filed into the Aviano courtroom on Oct. 29, 2012, to begin their case. It was easy for him to pick out Wilkerson’s supporters. The aviators stood in the back, arms folded across their chests, glowering at the prosecutors and the victim. Christensen proceeded through a litany of witnesses: other guests at Wilkerson’s house that night; individuals Hanks had called to try to get a ride home; and Hanks herself. After two days, the prosecutor rested his case. The defense then called Beth Wilkerson to the stand. She testified that her husband remained in his bed throughout that night. Two aspects of her testimony surprised Christensen. Previously the pilot’s wife said that she had thrown out Kim Hanks after being awakened by Hanks’s loud cellphone conversation. Her new story, created after Christensen handed over phone records showing no such call had been made, was that she had been awakened by Hanks’s pacing noisily around the room. Additionally, she originally told investigators that Hanks was very drunk that evening — which would mean that the pilot’s wife, known for her charitable spirit, had thrown an intoxicated woman out into the streets in the dead of night. Now her testimony was that the houseguest was sober. Christensen knew then that he was going to win the case.

During cross-examination, he asked Beth Wilkerson whether she had changed her story about Hanks’s condition that evening. Yes, she acknowledged. Had she also changed her story about what sound compelled her to go into the guest bedroom? Yes, she said. Christensen led her through several other instances in which the wife’s testimony was inconsistent with either her previous statements or those of her husband. The witness began to slouch in a posture of defeat, according to several people who were in the courtroom. The prosecutor concluded his 45-minute interrogation by standing over the pilot’s wife and asking, “Do you know of any reason Kim Hanks would have to falsely accuse your husband of having put his finger in her vagina?” Beth Wilkerson responded: “I don’t know.”

After three and a half hours of deliberations, the jury found Wilkerson guilty and sentenced him to a dishonorable discharge and a year’s imprisonment. Christensen saw the relief on Hanks’s face, even as groans of dismay pervaded the courtroom. This was not the place for the prosecution team to be celebrating. Christensen immediately ushered his deputies out of the courtroom.

Wilkerson was sent to jail in Mannheim, Germany, and Christensen returned to his family in Virginia. Over the next three months, the prosecutor began work on other cases while, unknown to him, dozens of letters — many from high-ranking officers — poured into the office of General Franklin, not only attesting to Wilkerson’s character but also claiming that Christensen had suppressed key evidence and that Hanks was a liar. On the afternoon of Feb. 26, 2013, Christensen was returning from lunch with a deputy at Andrews Air Force Base when an email appeared on his BlackBerry. It took him a moment to comprehend what he was reading. General Franklin, the commander stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, had overturned the verdict: Wilkerson was to be released from prison and reinstated at full rank.

Christensen was stunned. He knew that the military justice system allowed Wilkerson to request clemency from Franklin, the convening authority. He’d seen cases in which sentences were reduced or benefits reinstated. And he knew that under Article 60 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the convening authority even had the power to dismiss the sentence entirely. But he had never heard of that happening. It hadn’t occurred to him that a commander might simply ignore a jury’s verdict. But Franklin did. Amid Christensen’s astonishment, one thought took shape: The general’s brazenly autocratic decision would not pass unnoticed in Washington.

It took a day before the legal office at Aviano could locate Hanks and get her on the phone with Christensen. The normally composed woman sobbed as he delivered the bad news.

“Kim,” he grimly told her, “I have no explanation. The only thing I can tell you is that you’re about to become an agent for change. This will never happen again.”

A month later, the prosecutor met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at Hagel’s request. At that meeting, Christensen recommended that Article 60 be modified so that commanders could no longer overturn jury verdicts. Hagel — who recently announced that he was stepping down as Defense chief — urged Congress to do so, and a measure was signed into law by President Obama last December. (Wilkerson was subsequently forced to retire from the Air Force at reduced rank after another investigation revealed that years before, he had a child with another woman.) Several other reforms passed as well during that time. Those who accuse someone of a sex crime would be given their own military lawyers, known as special victims counsels. Accusers could immediately request a transfer from the base after reporting a sexual assault. Convicted rapists would be either dismissed or dishonorably discharged from the military.

The looming question today is whether these changes have actually reduced the number of sexual assaults, encouraged victims to come forward and ensured justice when they did. In December the Pentagon will release to the president and Congress the 2014 gender-relations report — a biennial in-depth and anonymous survey that is supposed to capture true numbers of sexual assaults. Military officials hope it will reflect significant improvement resulting from last year’s reforms. But several vocal skeptics on Capitol Hill doubt that these measures will prove sufficient. Many of these lawmakers are women — Representatives Niki Tsongas and Jackie Speier and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Claire McCaskill and Barbara Boxer — who became engaged with the issue after viewing “The Invisible War,” a revealing 2012 documentary on the subject, as well as having numerous private meetings with women and men in uniform who had been sexually assaulted. The stories the military officers have told tend to feature a common element — namely the favoritism that commanders exhibit toward the accused and a lack of sympathy toward those who report such offenses.

For this reason, Senator Gillibrand has led a legislative effort to remove prosecutorial authority from the military in sexual-assault cases and place it instead with an independent body. After consulting with Christensen, among many others, she wrote the Military Justice Improvement Act earlier this year; it came within five votes of passage in the Senate in March. Gillibrand expects that the new Pentagon statistics will persuade more senators to reconsider their trust in the military’s ability to police itself.

“For the past 25 years, going back to when Dick Cheney was defense secretary, we’ve had the military telling us that there’s zero tolerance for sexual assault,” Gillibrand said in October in her Washington office. “And all we’ve seen is zero accountability.” Gillibrand pointed out that the last gender-relations survey from 2012 indicated that there had been 26,000 cases of sexual assault, rapes and unwanted sexual contact in a year’s time. Only 3,300 of them were actually reported, roughly one in eight. “And so when you speak to the survivors, they’ll tell you they won’t report because they don’t believe the chain of command will do anything or they fear witness retaliation. Of the brave souls that did report these crimes, 62 percent were retaliated against. So you have a culture where rapists go free, there’s no accountability for sexual assault, there’s a climate where everything is shoved under the rug and people are actually punished for reporting sexual assault.”

THE PROSECUTOR | Don Christensen has worked on more than 300 cases of sexual assault in the Air Force.CreditAlec Soth/Magnum, for The New York Times

Proposals like Gillibrand’s bill are viewed by military officials as intolerable, a subjugation of a commander’s authority, which they say would erode order and discipline within the ranks. The Pentagon has countered with an onslaught of new programs designed to lend comfort to victims, to discourage predation, to keep commanders better informed and, above all, to prove to lawmakers that the military understands there is a problem. In May, Gen. James F. Amos of the Marine Corps vowed to a House subcommittee, “I’m determined to change our culture.” Earlier this year, Army Secretary John M. McHugh told an audience of military-sexual-assault experts that they were “changing the culture.” Not long after, the director of the Pentagon’s sexual-assault-prevention efforts known as Sapro, Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, also promised new programs that “will make a difference and change the culture.”

When I visited the prevention and medical facilities at Fort Bragg a few months ago, a senior officer involved in the sexual-assault-reform effort also assured me that things were different. “There is a change going on, quality and quantity — and soldiers are getting it,” the officer said. Fort Bragg happened to be the same Army base where Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair underwent a much-publicized court-martial earlier this year. Sinclair acknowledged a three-year adulterous relationship with a female subordinate but denied her claims that he twice sexually assaulted her. The general also confessed to using his superior rank to direct two other young female officers to furnish him with naked photographs. Ultimately Sinclair pleaded to lesser offenses and was allowed to retire at reduced rank. During roughly the same period, Defense Secretary Hagel ordered a systemwide “stand-down day” devoted to sexual-assault-prevention seminars. I later spoke with a seminar attendee, a female lieutenant who told me she was sexually assaulted on an Army base two years earlier.

“The presenters asked us if we felt things were improving,” she said. “We all laughed. Sinclair was happening then. He proved that it was a joke.”

Critics in Congress are skeptical too. In May 2013, two months after General Franklin dismissed Wilkerson’s verdict, Representative Jackie Speier complained to Hagel about a Facebook page apparently put up by Marines called “F’N Wook,” depicting women being tied up, beaten and shot. The Marines assured Speier that the situation was being investigated but would not say whether anyone had been disciplined. In September, an Army drill sergeant pleaded guilty to sexually abusing several female trainees at Fort Leonard Wood, the same base where the Army was teaching its criminal investigators the latest techniques in identifying sexual predators. Lawmakers like Senators Gillibrand and McCaskill expressed particular alarm at the allegation made by one trainee, who testified at the court-martial that the women were warned that they might not graduate if they reported any assaults. The Army responded that it had investigated the matter but would not disclose its findings.

Lack of transparency is not the only reason that the military’s promises of change have been hard to accept. It’s difficult to be sanguine when the supposed enforcers of change have themselves exhibited bad conduct. In June, the Army’s top sex-crimes prosecutor, Lt. Col. Jay Morse, received a reprimand after molesting a female officer at a sexual-assault-prevention conference. That same month, the Air Force’s sexual-assault-prevention director, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, was also reprimanded for drunkenly fondling a woman in a bar against her will. When the civilian authorities declined to bring charges against Krusinski, Don Christensen strongly recommended to his superiors that he be court-martialed. The convening authority in the matter elected to keep Krusinski in the Air Force.

Christensen comes from a long line of blunt-talking men, going back to his great-great-grandfather, who openly accused some officers of having been drunk on the battlefield at Little Bighorn. But over the years, not everyone has appreciated such candor. One superior who admired Christensen would warn him, “Don, when I do this” — dragging a finger across his throat — “you shut up.” Though younger lawyers have revered him for his acumen and frankness, those above him have been less appreciative of his direct assessments. Christensen has continued to make them anyway.

In February, on a flight from Frankfurt to Baltimore, Christensen noticed a familiar face on the airplane. It was Gen. Craig Franklin, the convening authority in the Wilkerson case. After his verdict reversal caused an uproar on Capitol Hill, Franklin was forced to retire as a two-star general rather than a three-star general, and he was now on his way home. Upon clearing customs in the airport, Christensen approached Franklin and asked if he could have a word with him.

“You blew it,” he told the former commander. “Wilkerson was guilty. Everything you wrote in your memo was wrong. I would have told you — you should have called me.” Christensen added that the victim, Kim Hanks, had been needlessly retraumatized by the ordeal.

Franklin, noticeably startled by this outburst, replied that the outcome had not been rosy for him either. “I lost a star,” he said.

Christensen left the airport and gave no thought to whether it had been imprudent to scold a general. Nor had he reflected on how his now-frequent visits to the Hill to discuss his views with legislators and their staff would be viewed by his superiors. And though he was surprised and offended to learn some months before that Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the commander of the United States Air Forces in Europe, had condemned the prosecution of Wilkerson while addressing several hundred officers, Christensen did not worry that his career was in jeopardy.

But a month after his run-in with Franklin, Christensen says he received his annual performance review and found that he was downgraded for the first time. His superiors informed him that he would soon be assigned to be a judge on the appellate court. Christensen nearly laughed when he learned of this “promotion.” The appellate court was widely understood to be the Air Force’s dumping ground for JAG misfits.

The veteran prosecutor had no intention of submitting to such a fate. As he thought about what might come next, he threw himself into one last sexual-assault case — involving an incident near Ellsworth, the Air Force Base where Christensen began his military career.

On Friday, April 12, 2013, about two dozen male officers of the 37th Bomb Squadron gathered at a strip club just west of the base. After spending less than an hour there, they took a bus to Sally O’Malley’s and then to Joe’s Place. At Joe’s, an officer named Kris — the only woman in a squadron of 70 aviators — caught up with them. She was a major, a lean and athletic B-1 weapon-systems officer in her mid-30s who had flown nearly 2,000 hours in combat zones, more than anyone else in the 37th. Often the others referred to Kris (who requested that her nickname be used to protect her privacy) as “one of the guys,” which she took as a point of pride, and it was only later that she would wonder whether, in simply rolling with the daily macho crudeness in the Air Force, she herself had been part of the problem.

Kris was just coming in that night from a nearly monthlong assignment at another air base. Her squadron greeted the major with high-fives and hugs, she said, and told her that she had some catching up to do. She drank two shots of tequila and put on a pub crawl T-shirt like the others were wearing. Then they left for another bar, and then another. It was getting close to 2 in the morning when the bus headed back to the base, but four officers — Kris and three men — decided to close down one last bar. She was quite drunk by the time they hailed a cab. While she slept in the taxi, the other three determined that they had enough money among them for only two stops. One airman, Capt. David Brooks, volunteered to take her back to his place and drive her home. Kris had flown sorties with him, and they were professionally cordial, though they rarely socialized. Without Kris noticing, Brooks snatched her iPhone and sent some crude texts to a squadron buddy who had left earlier, including one that used symbols to apparently replicate an erect penis.

According to Kris, she had not been inside Brooks’s apartment for more than a few minutes when he suddenly pushed her onto the couch. Stunned, she jumped back up, then promptly became sick. The reaction took Brooks aback. He cleaned up the mess while she staggered to the couch and fell asleep. Perhaps two hours later, she woke up, feeling not quite right. Her pants were undone. She felt hands groping inside her underwear, touching her vagina and her anus. It took her a while to understand what was happening. She could feel someone breathing heavily into her hair. The groping continued. Kris, now awake, reached down and pulled up her pants. Brooks stumbled away from the couch and retreated to his bedroom.

For hours she was alone. She had no cab money and didn’t know what address to give a dispatcher anyway. When Brooks finally emerged, late in the afternoon, she asked him to take her home. “See you at work,” she found herself saying as she got out of his car.

For weeks, Kris tried to get over it. She kept seeing Brooks at the unit. It seemed to her as if he were everywhere, bossing people around, strutting about as if nothing had changed, as if what he tried to do to her was a triviality, something he could repeat whenever he so chose and she would simply have to accept it. She could not. Rage consumed her. Six weeks after the assault, she filed a report. The base investigators interviewed her and had her write a statement about what occurred. Then they asked Kris to call Brooks, and they listened in while she confronted him for the first time about what he did to her that night when she was passed out. Brooks immediately apologized but said that he had been drunk himself and had no memory of doing such a thing. The investigators filed their report, which eventually made its way up to the Government Trial and Appellate Counsel Division at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington and landed on the desk of the division chief, Don Christensen, nearly a year after the incident.

What Kris encountered since reporting the assault was the same kind of cold-shouldered skepticism on the part of her commander that Christensen had seen in a vast majority of sexual-assault cases — behavior that was supposed to have changed with the military’s recent vows to support those who reported sex crimes. After Kris reported Brooks, the commander, Lt. Col. Stuart Newberry, who also was there during the night of drinking, issued a no-contact order specifying that Brooks stay at least 300 feet away from Kris — a standard procedure, except that the commander also issued the same order to her, which was something Christensen had never seen happen. Newberry agreed to move Brooks out of the squadron office where Kris worked, then decreed that out of fairness, Kris would have to be reassigned as well — though he backed down when she tearfully argued that this would be universally interpreted as punishment for having said that she had been assaulted. Still Brooks continued to show up in the office. “I need him here to do his job,” Kris said the commander told her. More than once Newberry told Kris that, just as in corporate America, his hands were tied. “If this were IBM, they wouldn’t be able to move him,” he said. When Kris told Christensen what Newberry said, he told her that Newberry’s analogy was wrong: It was hard to imagine a modern-day company in which someone accused of sexual assault would be permitted to continue to work alongside the woman he was said to have attacked.


Newberry, she said, also told her, “It’s illogical for you to think that there won’t be negative consequences to your reporting.” What the commander had not done was warn the rest of the 37th Bomb Squadron that he would not tolerate “negative consequences” for her. Instead, during one meeting, Colonel Newberry volunteered that throughout his experience in the Air Force, he knew of only one report of sexual assault, and it turned out to be false. (Newberry declined to comment for this article.) From what Christensen had seen over the years, this behavior was depressingly common. As he put it, “Commanders would much rather believe they have a woman who’s lying and crying rape than that there’s a sex offender in their midst.”

The judicial proceedings at Ellsworth proved routine in ways both satisfying and dispiriting for Christensen. He exploited holes in Brooks’s story. Kris was persuasive. It took the jury less than two hours to find that Brooks sexually assaulted her. He was sentenced to 45 days in jail, along with forfeiture of two months’ pay and dismissal from the Air Force. The case would, Christensen knew, be seen as a success story for the military — as proof that the system worked. A sexual-assault victim had displayed the confidence to come forward. During the court-martial, she had a special victims counsel by her side. Her attacker was tried and found guilty.

UNILATERAL CLEMENCY | Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, left, was found guilty of sexual assault, but Gen. Craig Franklin, right, used his authority to overturn the jury’s decision.CreditThe United States Air Force

But Christensen knew that the story did not end for the victim even after a guilty verdict. In August he returned to South Dakota to attend a discharge-board hearing in which Brooks petitioned to be reinstated into the Air Force. Several officers came to testify on his behalf. And though Colonel Newberry had recently left the unit to accept a one-year fellowship at Harvard, he testified by speakerphone on behalf of Brooks. Christensen’s disgust was evident. The prosecutor reminded the board that Brooks was now a felon who had lost his security clearance. Did the Air Force intend to keep him around as a mascot?

The board sided with Christensen and issued Brooks an other-than-honorable discharge — the maximum it could assign, because the court-martial jury declined to issue the more punitive dishonorable discharge.

Christensen stayed behind with Kris. She had just returned from deployment in Qatar, but her eyes conveyed a weariness deeper than jet lag. While Kris was gone, the wing commander visited Brooks in jail, as had several of his squadron buddies — a show of support that the victim herself had not once received. Kris was told that there had been an “all-operators” meeting in her absence, in which the operations commander informed the squadron that Brooks was found guilty and sentenced to jail time. But, the commander added, there were two sides to every story, and people could continue to believe whatever they wanted, regardless of the jury’s verdict.

More important, Kris told Christensen that after years of glowing performance evaluations, she had recently been downgraded — Newberry wrote that she needed to keep her “emotions in check.” There was nothing Christensen could think to say. He had done his job. But this was not justice. As he would later remark: “When the commander is so obviously supporting the accused over the victim, it sends a clear message that it’s O.K. not to believe her and to shun her. And so why would a woman come forward, knowing what Kris has gone through?”

That question invites a related question: Is there a remedy, legislative or otherwise, for an ingrained culture that reflexively punishes victims when they report sexual assaults? When I asked Senator Gillibrand about this a few weeks ago, the author of the Military Justice Improvement Act acknowledged that removing prosecutorial authority from the chain of command “isn’t a silver bullet.” She added: “It’s just a step in the right direction. It’s the kind of tool you need to help people have faith in the system.”

Efforts like Gillibrand’s bill to reform the military judicial system, and the resistance by the military to those efforts, have produced sharply differing reactions in Congress. One group of senators, consisting of pro-defense stalwarts like Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Carl Levin, the Armed Services Committee chairman, responds to each sex-related scandal with momentary dismay followed by strong words of support for the Pentagon’s efforts to self-police. At the opposite end are hard-charging reformists like Gillibrand and Speier, who do not even pretend to trust the military on this issue; as Speier (who has sponsored a bill in the House similar to Gillibrand’s) puts it, “The Pentagon brass is really good at coming up to the Hill and saying, ‘Zero tolerance,’ which is completely meaningless when the conduct continues.”

In the middle are two other distinct factions. Senator Claire McCaskill, an early denouncer of General Franklin’s decision to overturn the Wilkerson verdict — but also a crafty Democratic survivor of electoral trench warfare in reddish Missouri — has staked out the moderate, cautiously optimistic position that, thanks to Congress’s vigilant oversight in the past two years, the once-intransigent military is now chastened and reform is already occurring. She told me that the top levels of military leadership understand this. “Americans want to be proud of their military but can’t be when we allow these crimes to go unpunished,” she said. “I think they’ve come to the realization that they have to go after this a different way.”

McCaskill has emerged as the most vocal critic of Gillibrand’s approach to reform. Her alternative bill, the 2014 Victims Protection Act, keeps prosecutorial authority within the chain of command but establishes various review processes. It passed unanimously in the Senate just after the defeat of Gillibrand’s bill and was subsequently sent over to the House in March, where no action has yet been taken.

Above all, McCaskill and military leaders contend that commanders require such prosecutorial authority, both to maintain good order and discipline and to make sure that accusers will have their day in court, even in a losing cause. “Prosecutors are more interested in getting convictions than in cleaning house,” says McCaskill, a former county prosecutor.

That position is rejected by the fourth camp, led by the Republican senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, who are more trusting of the military than Gillibrand and Speier but less confident about the reforms in place than McCaskill. Cruz told me that he assumed the military was acting in good faith. “But what they’re doing hasn’t been working, and we need to take more serious steps. I approach this from the perspective of a father who has two young daughters — and I ask myself, When they come of age to join the military, what rule would I want in place to protect them from acts of violence from their fellow soldiers?”

A BROTHERHOOD | After Capt. David Brooks, left, was found guilty of sexual assault, Lt. Col. Stuart Newberry, right, and others from his squad unsuccessfully petitioned for him to be reinstated.

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