Illustration by Bela Messex

The United States military is taking its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to new and egregious heights, and it has nothing to do with keeping the lid on the sexual orientation of gay and lesbian service members.

No, this has to do with recent reports that bring to light the assertion that military leadership and Pentagon defense officials have been ignoring and covering up allegations of sexual assault and rape of service members by fellow military members.

These claims are being publicized thanks to a lawsuit filed in February by 17 United States military members, all of whom say that they were sexually assaulted and raped during their time of service but were not taken seriously by their superiors when they tried to report the attacks. The defendants in the lawsuit are former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and current defense secretary Robert Gates.

Plaintiff Panayiota Bertzikis alleges that she was raped in 2006 by a fellow Coast Guard shipmate, but when she tried to report the assault to Coast Guard personnel she was told to keep quiet and called a “liar” and a “whore” who would have to “pay for snitching.” Even the Coast Guard’s victim’s advocate encouraged Bertzikis not to try to press charges because she would be seen as “difficult.”

And this proliferation of sexual assaults and rape isn’t exclusive to women serving in the military. Nearly 50,000 male veterans screened positive for “military sexual trauma” at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs last year, up from just over 30,000 in 2003, according to the April 3 Newsweek article “The Military’s Secret Shame.” In addition, the lawsuit against Rumsfeld and Gates includes two male plaintiffs. Overall, the Department of Defense estimates that 19,000 service members were raped or sexually assaulted in 2010, but only 13.5 percent of them reported these incidents.

While the military has reportedly striven to recognize this issue of sexual assaults, this lawsuit makes it evident that there is much more that needs to be done.

In 2005 the Pentagon established the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office and trained 1,200 military officers on how to handle incident reports. But despite the office’s existence, the Pentagon says less than one in four military rape cases is ever prosecuted.

Additionally, a 2008 report from the Government Accountability Office says that as many as 43 percent of trained people at a given base still didn’t know how to report such an incident.

The judicial system within the military branch of government should be well versed in handling accusations of sexual assault and rape. It’s unfathomable to think that there are so many military officials who either don’t understand how to report these cases or simply blame the survivors.

Congress needs to make sure the commission they mandated in 2004 to oversee the military’s review and prosecution process of reported sexual assaults is actively serving as a watchdog of the military judiciary. It’s also necessary that pressure is put on defense secretary Gates, who has not yet implemented a database — mandated by Congress over a year ago — that would centralize all reports of rape and sexual assault in the military.

At least one member of Congress plans to bring this matter to the attention of other politicians. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) has pledged to speak out on a weekly basis on the floor of the House of Representatives about the military’s overlooking of sexual abuse until Congress acts on it.

Speier should be lauded for her dedication to this cause, and with her at the helm there is hope that those who hold the pens and the purse strings in government will do something about this problem.

If no one in this administration heeds Speier’s call, they will continue to stand idly by as the lives of men and women are traumatized every day, continuing to live in fear and shame without the support of their home country’s government.