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President Donald Trump recently pardoned a handful of convicted war criminals against all recommendations from the Pentagon. Clint Lorance was convicted of second-degree murder for ordering troops to shoot three unarmed Afghan men and was sentenced to 19 years confinement. He was released with a full pardon from Trump after serving just 6 years of his sentence. Mathew Golsteyn was charged with the extrajudicial killing of an Afghan he believed to be a bomb maker working with the Taliban and was granted a full pardon before facing justice. Trump also intervened to restore rank to Edward Gallagher, who was demoted for posing with the body of a dead child he was acquitted of killing. In each case, the men initially faced consequences for their actions only because fellow service members came forward to report what their fellow soldiers had done. With these pardons, Trump has wiped away those consequences sent the message that it’s pointless for soldiers to report misconduct because justice and protecting the men and women serving our country are less important than scoring political points. It isn’t just fellow soldiers who witness misconduct that will be put off by the pardons: for soldiers who themselves are victims of misconduct—especially sexual assault—these actions will greatly decrease morale among the ranks and discourage them from coming forward.

Sexual assault in the military is currently on the rise. According to a Department of Defense survey, in fiscal year 2018, there were 20,500 cases of unwanted sexual contact. For service members, reporting these attacks can be intimidating. This is especially true for female service members targeted by men in positions of power. The “good old boy” culture is alive and well in the U.S. Armed Forces, a male-dominated institution. During the course of my duration of service between 2003 and 2013, I experienced it myself when a man of significant rank assaulted me. After promptly reporting him through my chain of command, I was ultimately told that proceeding with action would “ruin his career” and that he didn’t know any better because he was young. These words came from a man of even higher rank who tried to reassure me that my attacker would be dealt with. Of course, this was lip service and nothing further was done.

It’s not out of the ordinary to watch high-ranking men escape punishment or even reprimand for misconduct. Several factors can hinder victims from reporting. Some of the biggest factors include fear of reprisal, being seen as weak, not being believed, and lack of support from the chain of command. Rep. Jackie Speier from California has introduced legislation that would implement a separate task force to investigate instances of sexual assault, but so far, it hasn’t gone anywhere. Currently, these cases are settled at the discretion of military commanders. Confidence placed in commanders to enact punishment has also been severely undercut by Trump’s pardons, which effectively took power away from those entrusted in the first place. The pardons reinforce the idea that even if powerful men are brought to justice, other powerful men will simply look the other way. As was the case for my attacker, it was higher ranking men who eventually squashed my formal complaint. Despite having initially reported the incident just as we’d always been instructed in the Army, I wasn’t given an opportunity for recourse. My attacker’s rank ultimately saved him and he faced zero consequences the first time I reported his actions.  

Trump’s refusal to listen to military advisors puts him at a disadvantage for understanding the importance accountability plays in combat readiness. The military has a responsibility to mitigate risk for service members while providing a safe channel for incident reporting. The systems in place have a greater chance of failure if victims perceive war criminals as having gotten off scot-free despite witness testimony against them. If murder doesn’t stick, how can victims feel confident that assault or harassment will? Detailed accounts of witness testimony revealed that reinstated Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher was described as “evil” and bloodthirsty by subordinates and peers. Clearing a man like Gallagher doesn’t make the military a safer place.

Nevertheless, many applauded Trump’s decision and the pardoned criminals began making their rounds on cable television. They stayed away from discussing the lower-ranking soldiers who came forward to give their accounts of misconduct perpetrated by their leaders. Instead, the pardoned men hailed the president and lashed out at his critics. During an interview with Fox News, freshly-released Lorance said, “I’ll say this, Mr. President: I wish you had a better team around you. You need more people watching your back. And I think you don’t have a lot of that. And that is absolutely unfortunate. And that infuriates me to no end.” The pardoned men also reportedly took the stage with the president at a recent fundraiser.

In 2017, post-MeToo Movement, I revisited seeking accountability for my own attacker after seeing his social media posts via a mutual friend interaction. This was scary because the first time I reported him, I was told to keep quiet and not ruin his career. While I continued living with the consequences of what he’d done, his career advanced right on time. Through the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response Program (SHARP), I made an official unrestricted report and gave a statement to the Criminal Investigation Division (CID). After an investigation was conducted, I was informed my attacker—now a Captain—violated Article 128 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. The returned violation read, “Assault consummated by a battery.” There are two elements to this violation: that the accused did bodily harm to a certain person and that the bodily harm was done with unlawful force or violence. Unfortunately, the statute of limitations for charging my attacker had lapsed at five years. I never found out what actions his command took against him, if any.

Toxic masculinity and rape culture go hand in hand. In an effort to justify pardoning war criminals, Trump tweeted in part, “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill.” Dehumanizing service members this way puts lives in danger by encouraging behavior not conducive to values the military tries to instill. With the commander in chief excusing those who commit extrajudicial killings and pose with dead children, service members are left to grapple with questions over how to proceed with reporting. Will I be believed? Will misconduct be pardoned moving forward? What if my attacker is held to account, but is later pardoned? These unanswered questions will bring down morale within the ranks, especially the vastly outnumbered female service members. Justice for misconduct is the only way to ensure safety in military institutions.

Angelina Newsom

Angelina Newsom is a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe currently writing about politics, Indigenous issues, culture, and women’s rights for various outlets while navigating life in Europe.