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Column: Teaching Women to Salute Their Rapists

Rape without consequence starts early in the military, if you believe the woman in a case now wending its way through the U.S. Naval Academy.

A female midshipman says she was raped by three football players at an off-campus party in April 2012. She didn’t remember much, but other students did, and there’d been talk about it on Facebook. So officials immediately swung into action: They punished the woman for underage drinking. The football players kept playing. And, because Naval Academy rules require midshipmen to attend home games, the woman had to watch as her accused assailants were cheered.

Now, more than a year later, the case languishes. True, the woman didn’t push the Navy to investigate after one of the players begged her not to hurt the team. But she didn’t drop the case, and at any rate that’s not how the system works. She’d already given over the information, and it was up to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to proceed. There was already damning evidence, from witnesses and from social media postings. There was no dearth of corroborating testimony.

And so it goes for too many sexual-assault victims in the military. Walking down a dark alley on the wrong side of town is preferable to going to the latrines late at night in Afghanistan — or to a party in Annapolis. The brass decries the violence but wants those who report it to accept the command structure and bow to authority. There is a lot of wringing of hands, but not of necks.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel calls sexual assaults a “scourge” on the military. Last year, the Pentagon received 3,374 reports of sexual assault, with the actual number estimated at closer to 26,000. Of those 3,374, almost 1,000 were thrown out and several hundred others were dropped by commanders as unfounded or for other reasons.

Something happens when a crime is reported in the military. Service members close ranks. How dare she, or he, upset good order and discipline? The victim often has to continue to salute her assailant. Everyone publicly agrees the situation is dire.

This week’s Senate hearings about sexual assault in the military illuminate an awful truth: Beneath all the official declarations about the need for change is a more powerful desire to preserve rank at all costs, even if the cost is a crime spree.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Armed Service Committee, has proposed bipartisan legislation that attempts to break this buddy system by taking the prosecution of sexual assaults out of the command structure. Uniformed investigators and prosecutors would still handle complaints. But that’s not enough to reassure the brass. If their authority is removed in the barracks, their thinking goes, it is also gone from the battlefield. Without their support, this one tiny step for accusers could fail.

So much for today’s four-star generals. What about the next generation of officers graduating from the elite military academies? The news there is just as grim. Consider the lawsuit filed last year by another female midshipman, a star soccer player from a military family that dates its roots to the Revolutionary War.

She says she was raped on two occasions by midshipmen after drinking. When she went to her Naval Academy counselor, she was not encouraged to report the rapes. When she became depressed and suicidal, she told her parents and reported both rapes. She was a year from graduation but, according to her lawsuit, Naval Academy officials decided that the “mental-health issues caused by the rapes precluded her from becoming a commissioned officer.” Eventually her parents and a member of Congress had to intervene to keep her from being sent to a mental institution. Both of the accused rapists graduated and became officers.

It’s not just Annapolis. That same lawsuit also tells the story of a female cadet at West Point who enthusiastically shined shoes, made beds and did whatever mundane tasks were required by upperclassmen. Then, she said, she was raped by an upperclassman after he gave her a sports drink with alcohol in it. She reported the incident, despite being called a “slut.” But she was still responsible for emptying her accused assailant’s trash, and was even assigned “walking hours” with him. She never graduated.

And what about the case in the news this week, of the woman who accuses the three football players of raping her? So far the only punishment meted out is that the senior among the three was not allowed to attend his graduation and become an officer. So it’s unclear if he heard President Barack Obama, in his Naval Academy commencement address last month, say: “We have to be determined to stop these crimes, because they’ve got no place in the greatest military on Earth.”

A Naval Academy spokesman told The New York Times that officials are “monitoring the progress of this investigation.” It will be telling if, come September, they are still monitoring the case when the two other players accused of rape take to the field.

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.