I appeared on Voice of Russia (America) radio today to discuss the impact that General Craig Franklin & Lt Col James Wilkerson had on military sexual assault legislation. And at the very heart of the argument every time is undue command influence, whether in the favor of the victim or the defense. The Commander cannot win. Although this wasn’t a conversation I was expecting to have today, I welcomed the opportunity to have the debate about this particular case. I followed it closely and I watched how the media and Congress followed it closely as well. This case was a perfect example of everything that is wrong with the military justice system. No one person should have that much power. Two very important things came from this case: predators in the officer corp and toxic leadership.
The radio station wanted to discuss the six page letter that General Craig Franklin wrote to justify his decision to let Lt Col James Wilkerson out of the brig. They wanted to know specifically why General Craig Franklin was the bad guy. This Commander’s actions definitely had poor timing given the debate on military sexual assault in Congress. General Franklin’s actions were the epitome of overstepping power and usually there is no one there to hold them accountable. But not in this case. This case tied into the very essence of the debate which is that untrained, non-legal personnel are making decisions about violent criminals which has an impact on all of us.
If someone reports a sexual assault in the military, it has to be reported to the Commander. The Commander then makes the determination whether or not to prosecute (as opposed to the military prosecutor). In this particular case, General Franklin did recommend the case go to courts martial. It went to courts martial and Lt Col Wilkerson was found guilty by a jury of his military peers. He was then sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal of service. General Franklin dismissed the charges, Wilkerson was freed from the brig, and then transferred to a base in Arizona where the victim’s family resides.
Aside from the Air Force OSI case I just learned about, this is about the most egregious abuse of power I have ever witnessed in my life. It was wrong on so many levels. Some may lead one to believe that General Franklin and Lt Col Wilkerson are victims of a media frenzy and in fact they were. They were the sacrificial lambs for the rest of the military officers. When we started this fight, we asked that violent crimes be removed from the hands of untrained military Commanders. General Franklin stepped right into the middle of this particular fight whether he meant to or not.
General Franklin’s actions are the very essence of why the military justice system is considered archaic and ineffective. We get that the military is trained to be the best, the best at warfighting, not prosecuting crimes. Our bases are embedded within our communities. Military personnel live with us, among us. General Franklin’s dismissal of the sexual assault charges may have been in the best interest of Lt Col Wilkerson and his family but it definitely was not in the best interest of society. How is it that General Franklin has more knowledge of all the facts of the case then all of the people combined that found this particular military officer guilty.
As a survivor of military sexual assault and now an advocate, I can say that a prosecution in the military is rare. All of the forces combined find less then 10% of those accused guilty via the courts martial process. The Department of Defense estimates that 26,300 troops were sexually assaulted in 2012 but only 3,374 reported or 13 percent. The majority of troops do not report the crimes to the Chain of Command or Commander because they are fearful of retaliation. And the retaliation in the military is not only real but it is brutal and sometimes has life long effects on the soldier.
Although the majority of the victims of sexual assault are men, more women report then men. Those who report find out quickly why others don’t report. The retaliation that results after reporting a crime to your Chain of Command, especially a sexual assault, is vicious. It comes in many forms, ultimately the loss of career. Over 90% lose their career for one reason or another after reporting a sexual assault in the military. The retaliation comes in the form of bullying, harassment, paperwork, extra duty, misconduct charges, medical reviews, medical discharges, errant diagnoses that make you ineligible for service like Borderline Personality Disorder or Adjustment Disorder, and a justice system that treats you like the one who is being investigated.
Predators stalk their prey. They perfect the craft with each victim. It is estimated that a predator has up to 300 victims in a life time. If they can lair us into their web by grooming us and gaining our trust, they can do the same to an unsuspecting Commander. Much like General Franklin, he could not imagine that Lt Col Wilkerson would sexually assault someone. I never thought the recruiter, the technical school instructor, or my supervisor would sexually assault me. I felt completely betrayed that they took advantage of an opportunity when they did sexually assault me. It is hard to escape those who hold your entire career in their hands, except in the military it includes your life.
Kimberly Hanks reported a sexual assault. Lt Col James Wilkerson was found guilty by a jury of his peers. We have a reporting problem in the military. Only 13% of the estimated sexual assault victims reported. This victim did the right thing and reported the crime. A Commander should not have the power to overturn any guilty verdict, let alone a sexual assault case. I didn’t expect the predators to do what they did to me just as General Franklin could not imagine that Lt Col Wilkerson would commit a sexual assault in his own home with his wife upstairs. That is what predators are banking on. They take advantage of victims when they are at their most vulnerable and make sure to do it when no one else is around. This is their modus operandi.
This case was highlighted by the media, by advocates, and Congress because it showed the American public exactly what is wrong with the military justice system. Whether the Commander is firmly in support of victims or discourages someone from proceeding with a case, it all goes back to undue command influence. And it works both ways. Both the accuser and the accused are victims of the system because the military appears to be political fodder to those in Congress. Because the military is run by Congress for the most part, it is reasonable for any Commander to feel political pressure to move forward with cases even when there isn’t enough to warrant the charges.
Our Commanders want to do the right thing for the most part but they are not trained to make these kinds of decisions. Police officers, detectives, and prosecutors understand the modus operandi of predators because they see the same patterns of abuse in their daily work. While I was working for the Military Rape Crisis Center, I noticed the same patterns of abuse within the military. Predators are preying on the young and vulnerable. They do not discriminate, as evidenced by the fact that more then half of the victims in the military are men. They don’t necessarily look like monsters and may be some of your best troops. They are embedded in our society just as our bases are. No one is immune. Begin by believing.