A rapist’s shameful honor

Anne K. Ream is founder of The Voices and Faces Project, an advocacy organization that seeks to engage survivors of sexual violence in political and civic life.

Consider this, if you can bear to. Jenny Bush, a young Arizona woman just graduated from college, walks into her home at the end of a workday and encounters an armed serial rapist, James Allen Selby. Selby, who had entered through a first-floor window, uses duct tape to gag and bind her, and then rapes her at knifepoint before fleeing.

After freeing herself, Bush has the courage to report the crime to police -- and the conviction to pursue legal justice. Following a nationwide manhunt, Selby is apprehended and accused of attacking Bush (who, with three other victims, took the stand at his trial) and at least 10 others, including a 9-year-old girl. In October 2004, Selby is convicted on 27 counts, including armed robbery, rape, kidnapping and attempted murder (for slitting the throat of one of his victims). But hours before facing sentencing, he hangs himself in a Tucson jail.

For Selby’s victims and their families, it may have been tempting to believe a certain accountability remained operative: His suicide put a fine point on how little he had left to live for in the wake of his conviction. But his death also granted this serial rapist a moral reprieve that the civilian legal system couldn’t. Selby was a Persian Gulf War veteran and so, in accordance with Pentagon policy, was buried with full military honors at Ft. Sill National Cemetery in Oklahoma.

The military policy of allowing honors burials for veterans convicted of rape sends a chilling message to victims: Even the most heinous sexual violence does not trump prior military service. It is a position that is as ethically indefensible as it is inconsistent. In 1997, after Army veteran Timothy McVeigh was sentenced to death for his role in the Oklahoma City bombings, Congress barred veterans convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death or life in prison from being buried with full military honors. Veterans convicted of rape or any other violent crime, however, encounter no such restrictions.


“By honoring those that do not deserve it, we dishonor those who do,” Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) said during 1997 hearings on the policy. McVeigh, he said, “was worthy of honor at one time, but he is no longer worthy of honor.” Surely the same can be said of Selby.

Jenny Bush’s father, Steve Bush, thinks so. Along with several victims’ rights organizations, including my own, he has been lobbying to prevent those convicted of the most serious sex crimes from receiving military honors at burial. Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), who represents Jenny Bush’s district, will introduce “Jenny’s Law” in the coming weeks, and Democrat Barbara Boxer of California plans to introduce a companion bill in the Senate.

To be clear, changing the military burials policy would be a largely symbolic act. The Department of Justice conservatively estimates that fewer than 40% of all rapes are reported to authorities, demonstrating how infrequently sexual predators are held accountable. The military in particular has a long history of downplaying or decriminalizing the violence against women committed by men in its ranks. A 2003 Veterans Administration report on military sexual trauma estimated that 60% of women in the Reserves and National Guard experienced rape, sexual assault or sexual harassment while on active duty. Defense Department figures show that there were nearly 3,000 accusations of sexual assault in the military in 2006, up 24% from 2005.

The Miles Foundation, a public policy institute specializing in interpersonal violence associated with the armed forces, estimates that only 2% to 3% of offenders receive disciplinary action as serious as court-martial. More commonly, punishment is of the administrative variety, such as extra duty or a letter of reprimand.

It is tempting, and far too easy, to maintain that the military exists in a realm separate from the civilian world. We tell ourselves that the moral ambiguities demonstrated by soldiers who have gone to battle on our behalf cannot be understood by, or be subject to the laws that govern, the rest of us. But the policies our military establishes to respond to violence against women are not merely abstractions. They are expressions of the military’s values, and our own.

In the wake of mass violation of women and girls during the conflicts in Kosovo and Rwanda, rape and sexual violence were for the first time codified as distinct crimes under international law. How telling then, and how troubling, that our country’s policy on military burials is at odds with international standards the United States worked to establish.