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Military Facing Scrutiny For Handling Of Sexual Assault And Harassment Complaints

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Amid a cascade of workplace sexual harassment and assault allegations across the country, the military is facing scrutiny for its handling of complaints.

In December, a national advocacy group called Protect Our Defenders joined with the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center to sue the departments of Defense and Homeland Security over military records involving sexual assault and harassment.

Leslie, a Connecticut veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and sexual assault survivor, was a guest recently on WNPR’s Where We Live. We’re not using her full name to protect her privacy.

She said she went forward to her upper chain of command to report the incident,

“They told me I don’t think it would be in your best interest to come forward and say this,” she said. “So it deterred me from reporting it. Later on when I told my story to someone who was a sexual assault response coordinator, they told me no, this is definitely sexual assault.”

And that’s not unusual according to retired Colonel Don Christensen, a former chief prosecutor of the Air Force and president of Protect Our Defenders. He said in the military justice system, commanders -- not prosecutors -- decide whether a case goes to trial.

“That commander might be a fighter pilot, might be an infantry officer,” he said. “But they’re not lawyers. They’re not prosecutors. And they have very little experience with sexual assault.”

The lawsuit seeks to compel the release of records on gender disparities within the military justice system and information on the handling of cases involving sexual assault.

The Department of Defense reported more than 6,000 reports of sexual assault in 2016, though the DOD’s own estimates put the actual number closer to 15,000.

Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. Diane spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.

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