Campaigns are largely silent on needs of military members, vets
President Obama, whose last visit to Los Angeles included a fundraising extravaganza at the home of George Clooney, is scheduled to return Wednesday evening for a guest appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” On his next visit, it might be nice if he could pull himself away from celebrities long enough to drop by the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus, which seems unable to provide beds to veterans who sleep on nearby streets.
Several times in Monday night’s debate with Mitt Romney, Obama mentioned his desire to make sure “our veterans have the kind of support they need when they come home.” That was more of a mention than the vets got from Romney, but still, if the president wants to help, I’d like to take him to the VA and show him Building 209, which has sat vacant for years despite plans to open it for rehabilitative services and housing. Rep. Henry Waxman, who represents the area, told me again Monday morning that he has no idea why the VA doesn’t get moving on the project.
Maybe Obama can get to the bottom of the matter, given that we’ve got about 8,000 homeless veterans in greater L.A. Otherwise, his alleged commitment to those who sacrificed for their country rings hollow, don’t you think?
I’d also like to hear from the commander in chief, and Romney, too, about their plans for ending the continuing scandal of rape in the military. The numbers are staggering, with the Department of Defense estimating there were 19,000 sexual assaults in 2011, but that more than 80% went unreported because many victims believe that either nothing will be done or they’ll be retaliated against or accused of inviting the rape.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has called this “an outrage” and vowed to make changes. In the past, assault victims have been forced to report incidents to their unit commander, even if that person was the assailant or might be inclined to quash an investigation that would reflect badly on his command. In April, Panetta made a policy change in which the initial investigation will begin higher up the chain, but critics say that falls short of what’s needed.
“Until it’s out of the military chain of command, it’s not going to” make a difference, said Ohio resident Kori Cioca, who served in the Coast Guard and says she was discouraged from reporting that she had been struck by her supervising officer and wasn’t believed when she subsequently reported that he had raped her. “They’re still going to keep predators in there and try to hide it as much as they can.”
I was put in touch with Cioca by Kirby Dick, a documentary filmmaker and neighbor of mine. Cioca is one of many alleged victims of sexual assault in “The Invisible War,” which was made by Dick and Amy Ziering and got the attention of Panetta, among other policymakers. Released this week on DVD, the movie examines the pervasive military culture of abuse, coverup and demonization of victims.
In the film, Cioca says her supervising officer would call her late at night, drunk at a bar, and order her to come get him. Once, she found him sleeping in her bed, but when she tried to complain, the officer she told about the situation was a drinking buddy of his, and her complaint was ignored. Cioca says her supervisor slugged her in the face after she resisted an advance, breaking her jaw, and later raped her. But he admitted only to hitting Cioca, and at court martial, he was restricted to his base for 30 days.
“To have your body trespassed in that kind of way, and for the military — with their reputation and honor — to just cover that up is disgusting,” Cioca told me by phone this week. “It broke my heart. It shattered everything I believed in.”
Cioca will undergo surgery next week to repair her jaw.
Marine Lt. Ariana Klay, who served in Iraq and was later assigned to the prestigious Marine Barracks Washington, describes in the movie a culture of drunken debauchery, as well as intimidation of women who didn’t fall into line. She said she was raped by a senior officer and his civilian friend — a charge they denied — and Klay said she was accused of inviting advances by wearing makeup and running shorts. The officer she accused of rape was instead found guilty of adultery.
Klay left the corps and works as director of an arts institute while also carrying a full load in graduate school, even as she continues to struggle with an ordeal that led her to a suicide attempt.
“I’ve kind of regained and rebuilt my identity because I know the strengths I had didn’t come from the Marine Corps, I was giving them to the Marine Corps,” Klay said.
Her husband, also a Marine, resigned from the reserves, saying he could no longer serve an institution that had shattered his trust.
“The worst part was watching senior leadership engage in appalling characterizations of women, and in reprisals,” Benjamin Klay said.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) has led a campaign for change, sharing shocking stories of abuse from the floor. She introduced a bill last year that would take sexual assault cases out of the chain of command and transfer them to a military investigative office made up of military and civilian members. But there’s been opposition from the military, and Speier told me she’ll reintroduce the bill next year.
Last month, Speier appeared with attorney Susan Burke in San Francisco, where 19 current and former service men and women sued military officials for failing to go after their predators. Burke told me she believes assault cases should be handled entirely outside the military, but she’d settle for the proposal by Speier.
“I don’t know how you can know this problem exists and not immediately get rid of chain of command,” Burke told me.
I don’t know how, as the presidential candidates pander to military interests, they can leave so many wounded warriors behind.