Skip to main content

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard, wants sexual assaults independently prosecuted. ‘As a woman in uniform, I know that we must act now.’

Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Joni Ernst knows what she's talking about.

The first female combat veteran ever elected to the U.S. Senate vividly remembers the crude jokes and unwelcome advances, the constantly lurking threat of sexual harassment that stalks every woman – and many men – in uniform.

"It's a problem. It hasn't been resolved in the last couple of decades," Ms. Ernst, an Iowa Republican best known for her claim that castrating pigs as a farm girl made her well-suited to dealing with Washington politicians, said during her election bid last year.

Story continues below advertisement

Canadians seeking solutions to their own military's endemic culture of sexual harassment and victim-blaming will find the U.S. warrior class and its military masters deeply conflicted over both the scope and seriousness of sexual misconduct and the solutions.

Former Supreme Court judge Marie Deschamps released a sweeping investigative report on Thursday about the Canadian military that found a "sexualized culture" in the Canadian Armed Forces that disproportionately affects lower-ranking female members.

The Canadian general in charge of responding to that report, Maj.-Gen. Christine Whitecross, will visit the United States on May 12 as part of a fact-finding mission that will include trips to Australia, France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Britain.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Maj.-Gen. Whitecross said the Canadian Forces are committed to creating an "independent, centralized organization" for sexual assault and harassment once those international examples have been studied during the summer.

"I think we can work that fast," she said. "[T]he centre is going to be there, it's going to be enduring, it's going to be sustainable."

But some in the United States regard their military's war on sexual harassment as too little, too late.

Just last week, Defence Secretary Ash Carter delivered the staggering accounting for 2014.

Story continues below advertisement

"At least 18,900 service members – 10,400 men and 8,500 women – experienced unwanted sexual contact," he said. "That's 18,900 too many. No man or woman who serves in the United States military should ever be sexually assaulted," he said in a speech to graduating officer cadets.

The military's rigid power structure and often-distant deployments present "opportunities for predators to put our people at risk and compromise our missions and our values." Worse, he admitted, victims are often abandoned by those in uniform. And for too many, the crime is made worse by how they are treated after the attack.

High-command promises to combat sexual harassment date back decades. "We've got a major effort under way to try to educate everybody, to let them know we have a zero tolerance policy where sexual assault is involved," Dick Cheney said more than 22 years ago when he was secretary of defence.

No one really knows whether the fact that more victims are reporting assaults means progress is being made or the problem is getting worse.

A year ago, the Pentagon released a stunning report indicating reports of serious sexual crimes, including rape, were up 50 per cent to 5,061 over the previous year. The military claimed a victory of sorts, asserting its improved reporting system and a crackdown on all forms of sexual harassment were behind the doubling of reported assaults. Critics suggested the increases reflected a worsening problem.

But as unsettling as the numbers were, less than 10 per cent actually led to courts martial.

Story continues below advertisement

That "should send chills down people's spines," said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat. She has spearheaded the effort to move sexual assault reporting and any resulting disciplinary or criminal proceedings out of the chain of command. The proposal is for independent military prosecutors to handle sexual assault or harassment cases.

Last month, one active-duty and three former female servicewoman filed a federal lawsuit in Virginia to force the Pentagon to end the practice of allowing the commanding officers to rule in sexual assault or harassment cases.

"We hope we can get the federal court to help make sure the department doesn't continue to let people who have known misogynistic and sexist tendencies be the judges," lawyer Susan Burke said.

The newly arrived Ms. Ernst, who served in Iraq and commanded a battalion of Iowa reservists, may sway some Republicans. She also wants sexual assaults independently prosecuted. "I understand many in my own party in Washington will oppose this plan, as will many in the military and Pentagon," she said.

"As a woman in uniform, I know that we must act now."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter