The Military’s Other Battlefield

Defense officials and lawmakers grapple with systemic challenges such as suicide and sexual assault.

The military consistently ranks as one of the most trusted institutions in American public opinion polls, but that trust is being corroded by the ongoing scourges of suicides and sexual assaults, combined with an intervention fatigue that has set in after more than 13 years of war. It is raising questions about the very purpose of U.S. military power, and tension is high among Congress, the White House and the Pentagon over how to address the challenges.

In December 2014, Congress wrote a number of provisions on military sexual assault and suicide prevention into the Defense Authorization bill. But some senators have come under fire for opposing two proposals that would have mandated more sweeping reforms and oversight.  

ASSAULT IN THE RANKS

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has been pushing Congress to pass the Military Justice Improvement Act, which would remove decision-making power in military sexual assault cases from the chain of command in order to combat a culture of harassment.  President Obama ordered Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to report to him showing marked progress on reforms that address sexual assault in the military. In December, the Pentagon released its report.

Total reports of sexual assault increased from fiscal 2013, but the review says the change was due to improved rates of reporting. In fiscal 2012, one in 10 victims reported military sexual assault—the rate is now roughly one in 4. The estimated cases of unwanted sexual contact have dropped by 7,000 since 2012, but 19,000 still reported unwanted sexual contact in 2014. 

When Gillibrand tried to bring her bill to a vote in the frantic final days of the 2014 congressional session, other senators blocked it, saying the Pentagon report proves recent reforms are working. 

Yet, according to the Defense Department report, 62 percent of women who say they were sexually assaulted in fiscal 2014 say they also were retaliated against in some way—the same rate as in 2012, despite recent legislation that made retaliation a crime under the military’s justice system. The director of the Pentagon’s sexual assault prevention and response office could not say whether there have been any prosecutions for retaliation.

Gillibrand asked Obama to consider executive action on military sexual assault, and floated blocking the confirmation of Ash Carter, Obama’s pick for defense secretary, over the issue. 

COMBATING SUICIDE

Warfighter advocates also made a Hail Mary attempt to pass the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act at the midnight hour of the last Congress. The legislation was named for a young Marine who had experienced scheduling delays in the veterans’ health system before taking his life. The bill would require suicide prevention programs at the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments to be evaluated by a third party, and extend free VA health care for an additional year to help address the problem.

But in a lone last stand, under fire from other lawmakers and veterans groups, retiring Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., killed the bill. He argued, “If we’re not going to do our job of holding the VA accountable, you’ll see the VA just exactly back where it was.” 

In November 2014, Defense One obtained the Defense Department’s most up-to-date data on military suicides. While the suicide rate has fallen slightly over the past two years to 2008 levels—around 16.1 per 100,000 active duty members—officials are cautious. In 2012, the Pentagon reported 522 service member suicides. In 2013, 475 service members committed suicide.

As of mid-November, suicides were slightly down for the year. There had been 254 suspected or confirmed suicides among active duty components, compared with 258 at the same point last year.

That’s still roughly five active duty military members committing suicide each week, on average.

According to a recent report by the Defense Department’s inspector general, the department’s suicide reporting is often dangerously incomplete, “a particularly serious suicide prevention problem that presented a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety.”

Less than 1 percent of the American public serves in the armed forces, and more than a decade of war has put relentless pressure on the all-volunteer military. 

It is not ending any time soon.

WAR WEARINESS

While America’s longest war formally ended Dec. 28, Obama quietly extended the combat role for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Troops withdrew from Iraq when the war ended in 2011, but they have returned to help in the fight against the Islamic State. As many as 3,000 U.S. troops could be deployed to Iraq by February in a military operation that has expanded into Syria and is now some six months old. 

The rapid rise of the Islamic State has reignited the debate over when U.S. military force should be used. 

Initially, polling indicated the public was overwhelmingly opposed to yet another intervention, tired of war and its costs. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., emerged as an early front-runner in the 2016 presidential race by tapping into this war weariness. But with a series of gruesome beheadings broadcast widely in the media, public support has shifted for increased commitment to the war against the Islamic State. 

Congress has yet to weigh in formally, and the administration continues to argue it doesn’t need permission. The Pentagon and State Department want maximum flexibility, which they see as necessary to succeed.  

U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power warned recently against intervention fatigue. “The risk of using military force is so significant . . . there should be a lot of layers and a lot of checks and balances,” she said. “But at the same time there are really profound risks to our national security that exist today.”

The greatest security challenge of Obama’s presidency has unearthed the great divide that persists over the United States’ role in the world: To preside over it, to partner among it, or stay the hell out of it. 

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