TOKYO — After a night of heavy drinking at the Globe and Anchor, a watering hole for enlisted Marines in Okinawa, Japan, a female service member awoke in her barracks room as a man was raping her, she reported. She tried repeatedly to push him off. But wavering in and out of consciousness, she couldn’t fight back.
A rape investigation, backed up by DNA evidence, ended with the accused pleading guilty to a lesser charge, wrongfully engaging in sexual activity in the barracks. He was reduced in rank and confined to his base for 30 days, but received no prison time.
Fast forward a year. An intoxicated service member was helped into bed by a male Marine with whom he had spent the day. The Marine then performed oral sex on the victim “for approximately 20 minutes against his will,” records show. The accused insisted the sex was consensual, but he was court-martialed, sentenced to six years in prison, busted to E-1, the military’s lowest rank, and dishonorably discharged.
The two cases, both adjudicated by the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, are among more than 1,000 reports of sex crimes involving U.S. military personnel based in Japan between 2005 and early 2013. Obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the records open a rare window into the world of military justice and show a pattern of random and inconsistent judgments.
The Associated Press originally sought the records for U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan after attacks against Japanese women raised political tensions there. They might now give weight to members of Congress who want to strip senior officers of their authority to decide whether serious crimes, including sexual assault cases, go to trial.
The AP analysis found the handling of allegations verged on the chaotic, with seemingly strong cases often reduced to lesser charges. In two rape cases, commanders overruled recommendations to court-martial and dropped the charges instead.
Even when military authorities agreed a crime had been committed, the suspect was unlikely to serve time.
Nearly two-thirds of 244 service members whose punishments were detailed in the records were not incarcerated. Instead they were fined, demoted, restricted to their bases or removed from the military. In more than 30 cases, a letter of reprimand was the only punishment.
Among the other findings:
• The Marines were far more likely than other branches to send offenders to prison, with 53 prison sentences out of 270 cases. By contrast, of the Navy’s 203 cases, more than 70 were court-martialed or punished in some way. Only 15 were sentenced to time behind bars.
• The Air Force was the most lenient. Of 124 sex crimes, the only punishment for 21 offenders was a letter of reprimand.
• Victims increasingly declined to cooperate with investigators or recanted, a sign they may have been losing confidence in the system. In 2006, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which handles the Navy and Marine Corps, reported 13 such cases; in 2012, it was 28.
Taken together, the sex crime cases from Japan, home to the largest number of U.S. military personnel based overseas, illustrate how far military leaders have to go to reverse a spiraling number of sexual assault reports.
In one case, a woman alleged that a sailor raped her. Later, she confronted him in a recorded conversation. She accused him of pushing her down “for sex purposes,” after which he apologized for hurting her “in that way.”
An Article 32 hearing, the military’s version of a grand jury, recommended a court-martial on rape charges, but the commanding officer said no. The charges were dropped.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who leads the Senate Armed Services’ personnel subcommittee, said the records are “disturbing evidence” that there are commanders who refuse to prosecute sexual assault cases.
The AP story “shows the direct evidence of the stories we hear every day,” said Gillibrand, who leads a group of lawmakers from both political parties pressing for further changes in the military’s legal system.
“The men and women of our military deserve better,” said Gillibrand, D-N.Y. “They deserve to have unbiased, trained military prosecutors reviewing their cases, and making decisions based solely on the merits of the evidence in a transparent way.”
Air Force Col. Alan Metzler said the Department of Defense has been open in acknowledging that it has a problem.
“We have owned that,” he said. “We have been public about it.”
Metzler, deputy director of the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said the changes in military law and policy made by Congress and the Pentagon are creating a culture where victims trust that their allegations will be taken seriously and perpetrators will be punished. The cases in Japan preceded reforms the Pentagon implemented in May, according to defense officials.
The military, Metzler noted, is making progress. The number of sexual assault cases taken to courts-martial military-wide has grown steadily, from 42 percent in 2009 to 68 percent in 2012, according to department figures. In 2012, of the 238 service members convicted, 74 percent served time.
That trend is not reflected in the Japan cases. Out of 473 sexual assault allegations against sailors and Marines between 2005 and 2013, just 116, or 24 percent, ended up in courts-martial.
Further, the 238 convictions are a small number compared with the estimated 26,000 sex crimes that may have occurred that year across the military, according to the department’s anonymous survey of military personnel. Sex crimes are vastly underreported in both military and civilian life.
The top U.S. officer in Japan, Lt. Gen. Salvatore Angelella, said the military takes the issue of sexual assault “very seriously.”
“Sexual assault is a crime and a contradiction to everything we stand for,” he said.
The NCIS provided more than 600 case files — seven years of detailed but heavily redacted executive summaries of sex-crime reports. The four military branches provided another 400 files covering narrower time frames.
The Pentagon has said its commanders have been using nonjudicial punishment less frequently in recent years. But the documents show that in Japan at least, U.S. commanders are using that authority more often. This is especially true in the Navy, where in 2012 only one case led to court-martial. In the 13 others, commanders used nonjudicial penalties rather than ordering trials.
The authority to decide how to prosecute serious criminal allegations would be taken away from senior officers under a bill crafted by Gillibrand and expected to come before the Senate as early as this coming week. The legislation would place that judgment with trial counsels who have prosecutorial experience and hold the rank of colonel or above.