Photo by Rebecca Nuttall
Marni Fritz reads an anonymous letter from a service member who was sexually assaulted
According to Stop Sexual Assault in the Military, 20,300 service members were sexually assaulted in 2014. One in seven of those service members was assaulted by a superior officer.
SSAM, a project of the Thomas Merton Center, an activism organization, held a protest outside of Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey's local office today to protest his vote last year against the Military Justice Improvement Act. The legislation, which would change the way rape allegations in the military are handled, is again coming up for a vote within the next two weeks.
"It's a beautiful day here in Pittsburgh, but somewhere 50 men and women service members will be attacked by men wearing the same uniform as them," said Ginny Hilldebrand, an activist with the Thomas Merton Center. "In our military, there is a culture and a judicial process that allows rapists to thrive."
A 2015 report by the defense department found that 75 percent of service members who have been assaulted didn't have enough confidence in the military justice system to report the assault. MJIA, which was first introduced in 2013 would reform the system for reporting sexual assaults so that decisions about whether to prosecute wouldn't be made by those within the chain of command.
"There will be more of a chance that people will report because right now they are forced to report to their superior but their superior might be the one who raped them," said Rianna Lee, an intern with the Thomas Merton Center.
Today's speakers addressed Sen. Toomey with letters and testimony from several sources, including Helen Gerhardt, who served in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. During her time there she witnessed the first sergeant of her company using his rank to intimidate those below him.
"This man had had a series of relationships with people who had been of lower rank who had been afraid to say no. This was know by other commanders. The good-old-boy network protected him," said Gerhardt. "It was only when another first sergeant called him out that he was removed from command, but he received no repercussions. There was no legal framework that made justice possible for the women who had suffered. This is 2016. This has been going on too long. We know that we need a system that is objective."
Also among the speakers was Antonio Lodico, executive director of the Thomas Merton Center, who read a letter from Paul Dordal, an Iraq War veteran and member of the center's anti-war committee who currently serves as a veteran affairs chaplain.
"While serving in Iraq in 2010, I ministered to one particular young soldier who had been repeatedly raped by her company commander. Her commander was only caught when the soldier had a nervous breakdown and told others what had happened," " Lodico read. "While under investigation the commander leisurely spent his days in the brigade headquarters while his suffering victim was under constant suicide watch and psychological care."
Another letter was addressed to President Barack Obama.
"In your nearly 2 terms as president, you have failed to effectively address the crisis of sexual assault in the military," said Emily Fecile, an intern at the Thomas Merton Center. "In 2010 alone over 47,000 sexual assaults were committed against United States service members. That's about 376,000 sexual assaults altogether in your tenure as Commander in Chief."
The Thomas Merton Center met with Toomey's staff prior to the rally. They said the staff didn't indicate whether Toomey would be supporting the MJIA legislation.
"Senator Toomey always welcomes hearing from Pennsylvanians and his staff in the Pittsburgh office was pleased to meet with several of the representatives," Toomey's communications director Elizabeth Anderson said in a statement.