As a former “unit victim advocate” in the U.S. Army, Jay Breneman witnessed up close and personal the shockingly common and profoundly disturbing problem of sexual assault in the military.
The U.S. Department of Defense estimates nearly 23,000 violent sexual crimes in the military last year, but Breneman said that estimate doesn’t begin to cover the instances of sexual harassment and intimidation, not to mention the violent episodes that go unreported.
Even with the military’s own advocacy effort in which he assumed a primary role, Breneman said sexual abuse remains pervasive, and victims – mainly women but also men – who bravely step forward to report the crimes often face revictimization.
“The victim doesn’t want to be seen as weak, as a problem to the unit, or be viewed with suspicion,” he said.
Breneman, veterans outreach and admissions coordinator at Mercyhurst University, will moderate a panel discussion on sexual abuse in the military following the Mercyhurst screening of The Invisible War, a groundbreaking investigative look into the epidemic of rape within the U.S. military, on Tuesday, April 30, at 7 p.m. in Taylor Little Theatre. The event, offered by the Mercyhurst Veterans Affairs Office, the Mercyhurst Institute for Arts & Culture and Crime Victim Center of Erie County, is free and open to the public.
“There are many fine men and women serving in the military today, and there is a great sense of solidarity and trust that goes beyond friendship, beyond blood; you trust each other with your lives,” Breneman said. “It is also a hyper-masculine environment that by its very nature attracts sexual perpetrators who seek power and domination.”
During his own military career, from 2002-2009, Breneman was exposed to horrific stories of sexual assault that victims had shared with him as unit victim advocate. The ripple effect extended even further when several of his own leaders were removed for sexual offenses, including the highest ranking enlisted officer in his unit at Fort Drum, N.Y., and the senior ranking NCO of his unit in Iraq.
“When you are deploying for war, having your leader relieved of duty for sexual offenses disrupts the cohesion of a unit and breaks down trust in leadership,” Breneman said.
Given the scope of the problem, the incident reports that sometimes drift into administrative limbo, the fears of victims, from reprisals to career inertia; is there anything that can be done?
Breneman says “yes,” but first, both military personnel and civilians need to have a heightened awareness of the problem and take meaningful steps to mitigate it. He urges local residents, particularly families with members in the military or those considering enlisting; and local ROTC members to view the film as a starting point.
“The military only has a certain capacity to address these problems,” he said. “We need policy changes that only Congress can make and people to drive those changes.”
At one point, the military was rampant with drug use, hate crimes and even had its own gang culture, problems that have since been significantly abated, Breneman said.
“In these cases, the military has done a great job through training, bringing harsher penalties to bear and bringing in third parties to investigate and conduct proceedings,” he said.
He would like to see that kind of third-party involvement applied to sexual assault cases whereby the victim and the perpetrator aren’t being investigated by the same unit they are a part of, which often results in protection of the accused and revictimization of the accuser.
Join others in your community in viewing The Invisible War at Mercyhurst and sharing in the important discussion that follows. For more information, contact Breneman at firstname.lastname@example.org.