Event highlights sex assault crisis in military

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Just two days after the U.S. Senate blocked a bill that would have taken military sexual assault cases out of the chain of command, a local activist group sponsored a multimedia performance on a Downtown stage Saturday to demand continued action and attention to the crisis.

"This issue is not going away," said Ginny Hildebrand, of Stop Sexual Assault in the Military, which partnered with Bricolage Production Co. to illustrate, through live theater, film and a panel discussion, the "epidemic of sexual assault and the assault-for-free atmosphere in the military."

Ms. Hildebrand spoke at a news conference before the performance at Bricolage's theater as part of its Fifth Wall series, which seeks to break down barriers between scripted storytelling and world events.

Five actors performed excerpts from Tammy Ryan's play "Soldier's Heart," which premiered last fall at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, along with excerpts from the Oscar-nominated film "The Invisible War." A panel discussion followed that included Ms. Ryan, Ms. Hildebrand, Bricolage producer Tami Dixon and Joyce Wagner, a former Marine corporal.

The play focuses on a female soldier who was raped by her commanding officer in Iraq and the difficulties she faces as a parent and a woman after returning to civilian life, a scenario that happens all too often in the military, said Ms. Ryan, a Pittsburgh playwright.

In 2012, the Pentagon released a survey that found 26,000 rapes and other sexual assaults occurred that year -- with only 302 cases going to trial. Under military rules, victims must report sexual assault to their commanding officer, but sometimes the rapist is the commanding officer, or a friend of the commanding officer's. Many victims say fear of retaliation or reprisal prevent them from reporting the crime.

Under the Military Justice Improvement Act, introduced by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., military commanders would be removed from prosecuting those cases, but the legislation failed to get the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster, in part because of fierce opposition by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

Ms. McCaskill, who once prosecuted sexual assault cases and has supported other reforms aimed at reducing sexual assault, claimed that taking such cases out of the military was unworkable. While commanders seek discipline and order within the ranks, prosecutors are looking for winnable cases and as a result fewer cases might be brought, not more, she said.

Numerous highly publicized cases in recent years prompted more congressional scrutiny, and the film "The Invisible War" prompted then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to change a rule moving sexual assault complaints up to higher levels.

Another bill passed in December would no longer allow senior commanders to overrule verdicts in sexual assault cases, and if there is disagreement between a prosecutor and a commander about the case, it must be reviewed by the defense secretary's deputies.

Ms. Wagner, who grew up in Mt. Lebanon, joined the Marines at 17 and served twice in Iraq, and now has a service-connected disability due to PTSD from military sexual trauma. Today, she is director of development for Iraq Veterans Against the War. While there's much talk about the changing role of women in the armed services, during Ms. Wagner's two tours of duty, in 2004 and 2005, she experienced a "grossly misogynistic" environment, one in which the powerful protect their friends.

But she isn't sure whether outside experts would be more effective than those within the military at defusing the sexual assault crisis, given their lack of understanding of the military culture. "But I also just think they're incapable of doing it from within," she said. "Military officers are not experts in this."

Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1949 or Twitter @MackenziePG.

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