Merle Wilberding, an alum of the former St. Bernard’s High School in Breda, is a national leader in efforts to prevent sexual assault in the U.S. military.
Merle Wilberding, an alum of the former St. Bernard’s High School in Breda, is a national leader in efforts to prevent sexual assault in the U.S. military.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

While the war continues in Afghanistan and while terrorism rages throughout many other parts of the world, an equally serious war is being fought within the United States military, generated by the disturbing number of sexual assaults committed against members of the military by members of the military.  

The statistics are alarming. For fiscal year 2011, it is estimated that there were 19,000 sexual assaults among active-duty military personnel. Only 2,410 cases were reported to authorities, and of that number only 191 cases resulted in a court-martial conviction. It is no wonder that so few victims file reports of sexual assault. They have no confidence that they will be protected or that the perpetrators will be prosecuted.

In early 2008 I was contacted by the family of a local U.S. Marine who had been reported missing from Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. After more than three years of investigations and court proceedings, it was determined that Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach was murdered and buried in the back yard of a fellow Marine whom she had earlier charged with sexual assault.

As a result of that tragedy, I began to work with Maria’s mother, Mary Lauterbach, for changes that would protect victims of sexual assault in the military. Mrs. Lauterbach and I testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Security & Foreign Affairs. We have been gratified to see our efforts play a role in the enactment of significant changes in the law and administrative directives in the Department of Defense.

More importantly, there is now a strong spotlight on the problem, and the military has responded with a number of initiatives to counsel and protect the victim and to pursue and prosecute the perpetrators for their crimes.

Even at that, it has been an uphill battle.

Unfortunately, although the Department of Defense has created a Sexual Assault Prevention Response Office (“SAPRO”), and the recent legislation elevated the director of SAPRO to be a flag/general officer, the results are soft at best. In the last three years, there have been three different heads of SAPRO. All were considered to have their hearts in the right place, but so far none has proved to be effective in making needed changes.

It is no surprise that changing military traditions and culture at the field level is a slow process. The laws have helped. The leadership at the top of the military has helped. But the results are still very discouraging.

The issue continues to attract critical support and pressure from other organizations and sources. Earlier this year “The Invisible War” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. It won the “Audience Award” and has been widely acclaimed as a powerful documentary about the horrors of sexual assault in the military.

Directed and produced by Amy Ziering, the film focuses on trials and tribulations of women in the military who have been victimized by sexual assault. In virtually all cases, the victim is shunned and even tormented by her peers in the military. Worse yet, her superiors all too often fail to prosecute and fail to recognize or provide even minimal help for the mental and emotional trauma that victims suffer — trauma that affects their lives for years.

I talked to Ms. Ziering at a special private showing of “The Invisible War” at the Dayton Art Institute in mid-September. In 2008 she had called to inquire about Maria’s case. I was taken then, as I am now, by her passion in using cinema to expose the problem and to plead for people to recognize the devastating nature and effects of sexual assaults. It was encouraging to hear how many Army bases and Air Force bases have ordered prints of the movie to use for their own instruction.

Yet problems persist. The instances of sexual assault described in “The Invisible War” were only too familiar. I have heard virtually identical stories from perhaps as many as a dozen victims or mothers who have sought help for victims. All too often the victim is in her late teens, is a thousand miles or more away from home, and feels completely isolated by her victim status. There are victim advocates, and their quality is improving but historically they have been more victim-listeners than victim advocates, with little ability to provide any real assistance.  The recent legislation aimed at making them more pro-active may provide a significant improvement — if it works.

People ask me whether they should encourage their daughters to join the military. My response is generally along the following lines. There are a lot of good people in the military, there are opportunities for wonderful work and life experiences, and there are a lot of good benefits earned from military service. There is also risk, including risk of sexual assault from fellow servicemembers. It is important that people join the military with their eyes open, so that they are aware of the potential for sexual assault and can be prepared.

It is encouraging to see more victims speaking out, such as the group of service women at Lackland Air Force Base who collectively identified several serial perpetrators within the ranks of the basic training instructors.  Increased public discussion can serve to raise awareness with the services, promote safer environments, ensure that perpetrators are identified and prosecuted, and improve the process for support and treatment of victims.

Military service has always been a badge of honor for Americans.  We just need to do everything we can to insure that everyone in the military can wear that badge proudly.

(Editor’s Note: Merle Wilberding has practiced law for more than 40 years. He is a 1962 graduate of St. Bernard’s High School in Breda. He then went on to graduate from St. Mary’s University (Minnesota) and the University of Notre Dame School of Law, with additional master’s degrees from George Washington University (tax), the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee (Library Science), and the University of Dayton (MBA). During the Vietnam War he served four years as a captain in the U.S. Army JAG Corps, representing the U.S. Government in the appeals of courts-marital convictions, including two of the most famous cases in military history: the “Presidio Mutiny” case and the “Lt. Calley – My Lai Massacre” case. Merle Wilberding currently serves as a senior partner at Coolidge Wall Co., LPA, a 35-person business law firm in Dayton, Ohio.)