Congresswoman on front line of military sexual assault is ‘confident’ there will be change

Investigation

WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — The senior mission commander at Fort Bliss announced a new initiative to combat sexual assault and harassment on Wednesday amid an investigation into the death of Asia Graham.

The effort is called “Operation Ironclad,” NewsNation affiliate KTSM-TV reported.

Sexual assault and harassment in the military, the number of cases and instances of retaliation have increased in recent years.

NewsNation sat down with Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), chair of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, to discuss her advocacy efforts and share what is being done on a federal level to solve the issue.

“It is because the military does not walk the walk. It’s because they want to say the right things and retain the status quo. And the status quo is killing men and women; it’s scarring men and women who want nothing more than to serve their country,” Speier said.

Speier said people are drawn to the military “because of a greater calling, thinking that someday they would be in a position defending the country with the enemy outside the wire,” but sometimes “the enemy turns out to be sitting right next to them.”

Asia Graham

In Pfc. Asia Graham’s case, she wrote that she was afraid to see her alleged perpetrator every day.

Graham was found unresponsive in her barracks in Fort Bliss, Texas, on Dec. 31, but an official cause of death has not been released. Authorities later ruled out foul play.

Pfc. Christian G. Alvarado is accused of sexually assaulting Graham. He has been formally arraigned with a total of six charges that the military considers violations under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

“The young woman was raped. Her command did not do what they should be required to do, which is provide her all the services she needs. Take the perpetrator and move the perpetrator. I mean, he remained in the same barracks with her right across the hall,” Speier said.

On Dec. 30, 2019, Graham was sexually assaulted by Alvarado; according to the military charge sheet, she was unconscious at the time.

Military documents also reveal Alvarado assaulted two other unnamed victims.

“It shows the callousness of a system that basically chooses not to believe the victim. She’s found non-responsive a year after the rape, and then after her case went public after she actually filed a complaint, there were two other women that had suffered under the same sexual predator,” Speier said. “She did everything right.”

It is an issue Speier knows all too well. In 2017, she came out with her #MeToo story.

“I know what it’s like to keep these things hidden deep inside,” Speier said.

She has been fighting to change how the military handles sexual assault and harassment for more than a decade.

“The core problem is, these cases are not handled like crimes. They’re handled as if it has something to do with discipline within the military, and therefore, should be subject to the chain of command—except that they’re crimes. They have now grown to be murders, in many cases, (or) murder-suicides,” Speier said. “The fact the military is unwilling to have these cases taken out of the chain of command, retained in the military, but have professionals. Professional prosecutors, professional investigators make the determination as to whether or not to more forward in the case, that’s what they’re afraid of.”

Rep. Speier has been working on the issue for more than a decade.

“I can’t tell you the number of cases, egregious cases that are swept under the proverbial rug,” she said.

According to the Congresswoman, there are about 20,000 cases of sexual assault in the military each year. Only about 6,000 to 7,000 are reported for fear of retaliation, she said. Of that number, Speier said 500 to 600 go to a court-martial, and 100 to 200 are convicted.

“So, what’s the message that’s being sent to the troops? The message is: ‘don’t report it. Don’t rock the boat. Your career will be damaged if you do,”‘ she said.

In 2011, an Air Force investigation by the Committee on Armed Services for the 113th Congress revealed widespread abuse of female soldiers in training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

“I was in Lackland Air Force Base when we found out that there were 35 military training instructors who had sexually abused trainees. These are 17, 18, 19-year-olds. One of the victims said to me, ‘when your MTI tells you to meet him in the storage closet. There’s not a question mark at the end of that sentence,'” Speier said. “Over 60 trainees were sexually assaulted. Not one of them came forward. And the only way we found out about it was because two other military training instructors who had been observing this finally said enough, and reported it up the chain. And even then, command did not do anything.”

Speier said the government has spent more than a billion dollars trying to fix the issue.

People pay their respects at a mural for murdered U.S. Army Private First Class Vanessa Guillen near Cesar Chavez High School, where a memorial service for Guillen was held, on August 14, 2020 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

“Then the Vanessa Guillén horrific murder elevated this issue in a way that it hadn’t been before,” said Speier.

In December 2020, the Army issued its Fort Hood report, which found the program ineffective and the command climate “permissive of sexual harassment and assault.”

“The Fort Hood investigation that was done, that was independent, exposed the fact that it’s rotten. The whole system is rotten,” she said.

Speier introduced the I am Vanessa Guillén Act of 2020.

My goal is to get it out of the chain of command. To make sure that sexual harassment and sexual assault are taken seriously within the military. That there is not retaliation, and that there is an opportunity for all of these victims to be served by victims counsel, to be compensated. And to make sure that those who are in authority are held accountable as well.

Rep. Jackie Speier

“You know, there’s Harvey Weinstein’s in the military,” she said.

Speier said she is hopeful her bill will be passed.

“I think it’s gained enough gravitas that the military appreciates that it can’t keep looking the other way,” she said.

Earlier this month, she and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) wrote a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to establish a presidential commission on the issue.

Since taking office, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin vowed to address sexual assault and harassment problems in the ranks, starting with a critique of sexual assault prevention programs in the military — including a 90-day commission.

Speier said Fort Hood is a prime example of what happens when the military investigates the military.

“The inspector general actually went to Fort Hood and said, ‘everything’s fine.’ And then you have this independent commission, five members who had served in the military before, who went down and interviewed thousands of service members, who looked at all of the documentation and came back with a scathing report and 70 recommendations for change,” she said.

After that report, 14 Army officials were either fired or suspended from Fort Hood.

“We will see change. I am very confident about that. Will it go as far as I want? I certainly hope so.”

REP. JACKIE SPEIER

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