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Protect Our Defenders working to eliminate bias in military justice

Marines on Flickr

Listen to our conversation with Col. Don Christenson

Credit Marines on Flickr / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

The Department of Defense reports 20,000 service members experienced at least one sexual assault in 2014. That's virtually unchanged since 2010, despite the Department of Defense's insistence that it has tackled the problem and that "most active-duty members received effective training on sexual assault."

Accusing a fellow service member of sexual assault in the military can hurt the victim career-wise, socially and administratively.

Col. DonChristensenis the former chief prosecutor of the US Air Force, where he tried over 150 courts-martial as a trial and defense counsel. He presided over 90 trials as a military judge.

Now, Christensen is the President ofProtect Our Defenders. The group's mission is to end what it calls "the epidemic of military rape."

Christensen's family has a long history of serving in the military. From his great-great-grandfather fighting in the Battle of Little Big Horn, to his father and grandfather who were both career Air Force members.

Christensen himself served for 23 years before leaving in 2014.

"Seeing how the court just wasn't fair to the accused or the survivors of sexual assault," caused his departure from the military.

"I saw that justice wasn't done by the facts, justice was done by who you knew," he says.

Sexual assault continues to be a problem for the military and Christensen says this impacts the military's ability to complete its mission. It can drive good men and women out, or prevent them from joining at all.

Christensen says Department of Defense leadership has failed to send a clear message that sexual assaults will be handled seriously.

Of the 20,000 sexual assaults in the military reported in 2014 by the Department of Defense, Christensen says only 200 or 300 were convicted.

"The odds are astronomically in your favor that if you conduct a sexual assault that you'll never be held responsible."

This number doesn’t include civilian employees, spouses, children or members of the public both at home and abroad that may have been victims.  

For victims in the military it can be almost impossible to escape the perpetrator and accusing them brings the risk of retaliation. Christensen says 60% of survivors are retaliated against, and it can lead to them being kicked out of service or ostracized within their unit.

Christensen says there are over 1 million VA visits every year associated with military sexual trauma.

"It is something that follows them forever, especially when they have had the very institution they love turn its back on them," he says.

Christensen advocates putting more pressure on Congress to change our current policies. While he is thankful that Article 60, which gave Generals the power to overturn a jury's verdict, has been eliminated, there is still a long way to go.

The U.S. Senate just rejected New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's Military Justice Improvement Act that would have given more power to independent military prosecutors who have experience in prosecuting serious crimes.

"I love the military and I've dedicated so many years of my life to the military, my family has. And I want to see it be the best it can possibly be, and it's failing right now," Christensen says.

Copyright 2021 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

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