Tag Archives: military

The Next Challenge for Religion: Accept Mental Illness and Embrace the Sick; Don’t Shun Them

Soldier w folded flagOn Veteran’s Day last month, Televangelist Kenneth Copeland insisted that American veterans returning from combat need not suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), mostly because they were killing in the name of God and would therefore remain somehow Biblically “blameless” and thus emotionally unharmed.

The comments were moronic, and in fairness intensely criticized by heavily conservative religious groups including the Southern Baptist Convention. But Copeland’s words shouldn’t just be written off as an isolated and ignorant rant. There is reason to believe that many religious individuals- particularly ones with a “just world” view and a belief in an omnipotent if often inscrutable God- tend to want to explain away mental illness in terms of a spiritual failure or a demonic force.

Historically, this should come as no surprise. The physically disabled, disfigured and diseased were for millennia made to feel somehow responsible for their predicaments and admonished to either beg forgiveness or somehow pray harder. There has long been an irksome internal conflict presented to those who believe in an all powerful God Who would yet allow disease and disability to stalk His creatures. Certainly not all religious thinkers over the centuries wrote off these maladies as the fault of the stricken, but even as religious thought has evolved, the idea that people are somehow responsible for their fate has remained a tempting conclusion for those who have a difficult time with how God appears to work in the world.  It is also, sadly, a common, defensive strategy imposed by the lucky to distance themselves from the unlucky. Ask the legions of sexual violence survivors who have borne blame in exactly that way.

Where somatic disease is concerned, though, to a large extent, medical science, common sense and better standards of human decency have led most religious away from blaming and isolating the physically ill.

But we need to ask ourselves very frankly if the same thing is true when it comes to mental diseases and disorders. Prayer may no be longer be the sole remedy suggested by a deeply religious person for an inflamed appendix or a broken bone. Yet how often is it still being suggested confidently as the only necessary answer to chemical depression, organic mental illness, and yes- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Dr. Jo Ann Rooney, Navy Undersecretary Nominee, Has Made Sen. Gillibrand’s Point on Military Justice

I’d say that Dr. Jo Ann Rooney, the President’s nominee for undersecretary of the Navy, perhaps misspoke when she made the patently awful sounding statement “the impact [of judge advocates outside the chain of command making prosecutorial decisions in sexual assault cases] would be decisions based on evidence rather than the interest in preserving good order and discipline.”

Except that Dr. Rooney didn’t speak. The statement was written, as testimony, to the Senate committee considering her nomination. One would think that answers reduced to writing are a product of more coherent thought and willful expression than what is sometimes uttered, despite best intentions. Rooney chose, or approved of, these words, and frankly they sound shocking, at least to people who don’t view justice the way she appears to view it. In fact, it seems that Rooney views military justice the way many military commanders and insiders do, that is as a tool for commanders to maintain discipline and good order rather than an ideal unto itself.

I’ve written on this before and I’ve pointed out, in fairness, that the promotion of justice is the first of the three clauses that describe the purpose of the United States military justice system. But Rooney’s apparent attitude that justice is more of a tool toward the forging of a larger goal- the maintenance of a cohesive and lethal fighting force- is one I commonly saw reflected during my civilian service to the Army.

She has since back-tracked in a letter to chairman Carl Levin, saying that while commanders certainly need to consider evidence in whether to bring charges such as sexual assault, they also need to consider more than that, and include factors such as the impact on morale and discipline.

Small wonder this clarification served to alarm Gillibrand more, not less.

Rooney believes that prosecutors are, apparently, too narrowly focused on simply whether a crime was committed against one human being by another. “Prosecutors, in my experience, evaluate evidence with an eye toward whether a conviction is likely,” she said. “Commanders consider additional factors.”

I’m not sure what prosecutors Rooney is referencing. Prosecutors are not, despite this description, auto-piloted hammers who bring charges as long as a cold analysis favors a conviction. In fact, prosecutors at all levels do consider other factors like resources and the interest of the involved parties and the community.

But what civilian prosecutors don’t do, ideally and certainly structurally, is concern themselves with whether the prosecution of a wrongdoer might be best avoided because of its effect on a larger group as an organism or entity.

This is exactly what Gillibrand is correctly fighting to end once and for all: The understandable but potentially justice-adverse tendency that commanders have to consider factors unrelated to whether one individual committed a serious criminal offense against another.

Rooney also notes favorably that commanders have “non-judicial punishment options” in dealing with offenders. But the offenders that Gillibrand’s initiative targets are service members who are committing rape and felony sexual assault. Non-judicial punishment under Article 15 of the UCMJ involves relatively minor confinements, restrictions, extra duty, counseling, and other disciplinary measures in lieu of a court martial for minor offenses.

Gillibrand herself, in reference to Rooney’s original troubling statement, asked “in what world would you recommend that the decision to prosecute a serious crime….not be based on evidence?”

Indeed, I’d follow up with, “in what world would you recommend non-judicial punishment for a felony sex crime?

Gillibrand’s proposed Military Justice Improvement Act does not disturb a commander’s ability to use non-judicial punishment for minor offenses, which means Rooney is either dreadfully misinformed or actually believes that NJP might be the answer to some cases of sexual violence, given the “other factors” she believes commanders should consider.

The supremacy of the individual observed in our culture is not one that can be similarly observed in military life. Many aspects of it involve compromising the needs of individuals for the larger health- and fighting ability- of the group.

But where justice, and a competent and effective response to sexual violence is concerned especially, the current system should be amended- reasonably- to do better. Dr. Rooney seems to make this very clear.

Gail Heriot in the Weekly Standard: Wrong on Military Justice, Wrong on Rape

iStock military justice

Law professor Gail Heriot’s current piece In the Weekly Standard asserts baldly that the military has no sexual assault crisis, and instead is reeling from media and Congressional hysteria. To be fair, she makes some true statements. Unfortunately they’re all beside the point, or suggest the opposite of what Heriot aruges.

She asserts that colleges and universities are dangerous sexual environments for women, as much if not more than the military. This is true. And also beside the point. College life is alarmingly dangerous in terms of sexual violence and most institutions aren’t doing nearly enough to address it. The military is also a dangerous environment. But unlike the vast and diverse universe of American higher education, the military is under direct civilian control and literally “uniform” in terms of its response, which can be addressed by Congress more readily than colleges and universities.

Heriot also asserts that “off-post rapes” committed by service members (and thus pursuable by both civilian and military prosecutors), are pursued by military prosecutors at far higher rates. This is a good thing, but not surprising. Off-post sex crimes committed by service people are usually committed against other service people and involve military witnesses. The military is in a better position to pursue those cases and has more interest in doing so. Civilian prosecutors offices are also notorious for declining to prosecute challenging sexual violence cases (i.e, the vast majority), so no one should be offering them (collectively) as a standard to be emulated. But again, how does a lackluster civilian response translate into the military having no serious issues with its response?

Yes, the military prosecutes rape, and increasingly does so aggressively and competently. Aside from bold initiatives like the Army’s Special Victim Prosecutor program that I helped develop, I worked with Army trial attorneys whose talent and dedication I’d pray for if a loved one were victimized and her case prosecuted.

But first a report must be made. This is a major response issue the military faces, for the exact reason Heriot inadvertently mentions. Reporting a crime as a soldier or sailor is more like reporting to an employer than to police. Sex crimes are difficult for anyone to report. Imagine reporting to a superior you work with everyday (while your attacker is in or near the very same environment) and then to a command stream where cohesiveness and unflagging enthusiasm are the most demanded attributes. What if your attacker is valued and admired, depended upon where life and death are concerned, but you aren’t? What if you’re isolated on a forward operating base near an active front? The military is not blameworthy for most of these circumstances; they are simply among the hardships experienced by members of a force that must be nimble, cohesive, and lethal when called upon. The efforts of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA), aim at addressing these realities with military lawyers, just outside the chain of command where inherent conflicts exist.

Heriot dismisses these challenging circumstances by predictably confusing drunk sex (which happens constantly in military and civilian life without being confused as rape) and rape, which is rarely reported even when clear and devastating. She misconstrues UCMJ standards on incapacity, and like many people seems to think that rape is usually the product of an alcohol-fueled misunderstanding rather than a predatory act. She’s wrong. Her reliance for insight on an aggressive defense attorney like Michael Waddington, with a career incentive to make the military appear reactionary, is dubious. As for the Navy prosecutor who sees a distinction between “rape” and “Navy rape?” Move her to contract law.

Curious to me most of all was Heriot’s subtly emasculating criticism of the “supplicating” General Raymond Odierno whom she chastises for assuring Congress that combating sexual assault was our military’s number one priority (rather than defending the country, apparently).

I’ve never met Odierno, but I know he’s a nuclear engineer and considered a literal genius by pretty much everyone who has. Perhaps what Odierno understands is that the military’s highest priority (assumed and obvious except by the occasional law professor) can’t be achieved until the well-being of the young brave men and women ultimately responsible for its security can be.


Great Reporting on Disturbing & Predatory Behavior: Lackland AFB

Sig Christenson, a reporter at the San Antonio News Express, has been relentless in covering what amounts to highly disturbing- but not surprising- predatory behavior by recruiters and instructors at Lackland Air Force Base outside of San Antonio, Texas. The latest sentence handed down by a court martial was directed at a 7 year Air Force veteran and instructor who had sex and inappropriate contact with trainees under his guidance, but it pales in comparison to the 27 years received by former recruiter Jaime Rodriguez earlier last month. Rodriguez’s sentence seems deeply harsh, but the trust he betrayed and power he abused in order to victimize mostly adolescents with dreams of entering the Air Force are considerable. Recruiters have immense power, usually over the lives of young and impressionable teenagers hoping for the opportunities that a military career can offer. It’s sad, but not uncommon to see young people enlisting from challenged backgrounds and difficult circumstances. Sadder still is that recruitment posts are also attractive to predators who seek to offer the promise of the military, to those most in need of its attributes and opportunities, only for a price. As usual, most recruiters and instructors are not predatory. But the few who are, and Rodriguez is a particularly vicious example, create untold damage to young people subjected to the exact opposite of the example they hope and in some cases pray to receive when they seek to enlist and serve.

Courage: An Army Rape Survivor Speaks Out

An important blog called My Duty to Speak exists to give military sexual violence survivors a forum to share their experiences. The one shared most recently is particularly haunting. An unrelated hazing incident after the attack added further trauma. But nothing equals the apparent confession the attacker made during an “amnesty day” in front of drill sergeants who took no action. Incidents like this underpin, among other things, an alarming suicide rate. Good on this person for possessing the courage to come forward and speak up.