The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are either over or winding down, but the specters of death and justice have taken a disturbing new tandem twist this year with the issues of U.S. military suicides and sexual assaults within the ranks.
Emerging are the corresponding nexus of the two issues. Though there isn't much data available, a likely link may include sexual assaults that fuel the suicide rate.
The two numbers that have captured the attention of Sen. Joe Donnelly and Rep. Jackie Walorski are these:
• 349 suicides in 2012, surpassing the 295 American soldiers killed in combat in the Afghanistan theater of operations;
• 26,000 sexual assaults within the 1.8 million military personnel in 2012, according to a Department of Defense survey, while only 3,374 cases were officially reported. These ranged from rape to groping and are a 35-percent increase from the 19,300 cases in a similar report issued in 2010.
In May, President Obama reacted by saying, “It is dangerous to our national security. This goes to the heart and core of who we are and how effective we're going to be.”
Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam POW and former Republican presidential nominee, crystalized the emerging furor by saying he could not recommend the military service for a female.
That is stunning and sad.
Donnelly explained, “This has been an extraordinarily serious issue for a number of years. It is finally at a place where everyone is taking it seriously.” The entire cohesion on the force is based on the intrinsic trust between soldiers and sailors.
Donnelly said that statistics he has seen reveal that a female sexual assault victim in the military is 14 times more likely to consider suicide than other personnel. “This is an incredibly damaging action that has caused people to contemplate suicide, to think about it,” he said.
For Rep. Walorski, military sexual assault has become a signature issue. In her second week in office, the Jimtown freshman Republican began working on legislation to help victims of sexual violence. She was alerted to the problem during briefings given to members of the House Armed Services Committee.
A measure written by Walorski and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., strengthens military whistleblower protections by extending them to victims of sexual assault. The legislation requires an Inspector General investigation into reports of retaliation against people who bring forward claims of alleged rape or other forms of sexual misconduct.
The focus on the topic in Congress has intensified. Walorski's measure is part of the defense authorization bill that the House is considering.
“This is a tough issue. This is an extremely sensitive issue,” Waloski said. “It's time for Congress to take a stand. It's time to eradicate this from the military.”
The reason that there are so few reports of sexual assault is the pervasive fear of workplace retaliation and abuse in the military, according to Walorski. She calls the situation “blatantly wrong.”
As for solutions, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY., has written legislation that would prompt reporting of these crimes outside the chain of command. “That is under discussion at this point,” Donnelly said. “We are trying to make a determination on whether that step has to be taken.”
The other issue on Donnelly's radar is military suicide. He conducted a six-city Indiana fact-finding tour this month. What did he learn?
“That it cuts across all economic levels, all education levels and all different wars,” Donnelly said. “I sat with vets in American Legions across the state and they said, ‘Look, when I came home, I didn't know what to do with myself. I felt overwhelmed, I felt challenged, I felt I had nobody to talk to, that I had all these pressures creeping up on me.’”
Donnelly's first bill is the Jacob Sexton Military Suicide Prevention Act of 2013, named after Farmland, Ind., native Jacob Sexton, who took his own life in 2009 in a Muncie movie theater. Sexton was an infantryman in the Indiana National Guard.
“In talking to Jacob Sexton's parents, his dad told me, ‘After the (funeral) services, so many of his friends who had served with him said they knew Jacob wasn't himself the last few months,’” Donnelly explained, “One of the most important things we can do is have the commanding officer in charge, if they see something, that they immediately let us know and that it be, in no way, shape or form, a mark on the young man or woman's career.”
Donnelly's suicide bill would establish a pilot program aimed to integrate mental health components into a service member's annual health assessment. “This bill seeks to better identify service members struggling with mental health issues and to ensure they receive the assistance they need before resorting to this tragic act,” said Donnelly, who cited the innovative Indiana National Guard's J9 program, which incorporates a detailed mental health review of a soldier's fitness.
Asked where he thought these two issues might evolve in five years, Donnelly said, “This is an all-in effort. This needs to end immediately. I hope it's not five years, I hope it's next month, next week or tomorrow.”
This columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.