Connecticut Lawsuit Reveals Military Sex Assault Data

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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Margaret Middleton
Margaret Middleton

Connecticut is hundreds of miles from Washington, D.C., and so it might not seem like a place where the current national debate over sexual assault in the armed forces resonates loudest.

But consider this: There is a nuclear submarine base in Groton, and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London. There is a U.S. senator who has been outspoken on the issue. There is an active volunteer force of attorneys who are aggressive about the rights of veterans. And there are a pair of lawsuits in U.S. District Court in New Haven.

The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School has sued the Department of Defense and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on behalf of the Service Women's Action Network and American Civil Liberties Union. The plaintiffs charge the two agencies were unlawfully denying access to public records about sexual assaults in the military. The suits also say the VA has not provided public records about claims for benefits brought by military personnel as a result of those assaults.

A few weeks ago, a partial settlement was reached in one of the lawsuits that resulted in the release of some data. The statistics revealed that while 53 percent of all claims for post-traumatic stress disorder are approved by the VA, only 32 percent are approved in cases involving sexual violence.

"We hope the release of this information will finally allow the public to understand that the VA discriminates against survivors of military sexual trauma," said Yale law professor Michael Wishnie, who as co-director of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic worked with law school students to achieve the settlement. "We didn't know about that discrimination until this case."

The settlement comes at a time when discrimination against women in the military, particularly women who have been victims of violent sexual assaults, has been the impetus behind two high-profile bills backed by Connecticut lawmakers.

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, the former Connecticut attorney general, introduced legislation that would give military crime victims appearing the military courts the same basic rights as civilian crime victims. These rights include protection from the accused, opportunity to speak at trial and the right against unreasonable delay in trial proceedings. Another bill in Congress, co-sponsored by U.S. Representative Rose DeLauro, D-New Haven, seeks to remove the chain of command from investigating sex crimes within military units, are necessary.

Both bills were brought in direct response to a recent U.S. Defense Department study that estimates as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year alone, with the vast majority of those incidents going unreported. The number represents an increase of 7,000 from 2011, according to the report, which found thousands of victims have been reluctant to come forward out of fear they would face retaliation. Among the 3,374 military personnel who did report sexual assaults in 2012, 62 percent said they were retaliated against either professionally or socially.

Part of the problem, Blumenthal said in a statement, is a military culture that puts undue stress on the victims. For instance, he said, the military typically drags out disciplinary hearings for two years or more. And commanders have been permitted to reduce disciplinary findings after the fact, as an appellate court might in the civilian courts.

"There's no reason military sexual assault victims should be given less respect or fewer rights than civilian sexual assault victims," Blumenthal said.

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