Op-Ed: California should take the lead in tackling the military’s sexual assault epidemic

May 08, 2020

Orange County Register
Guest Op-Ed
By Dwight Stirling and Rose Carmen Goldberg

As coronavirus continues to sweep across California and most of us shelter-at-home, National Guard members are deploying across the state to help. They’re running food banks, delivering test kits, and creating field hospitals. At the same time, they’re facing an epidemic of their own—military sexual assault. In the words of one investigator, sexual harassment in the California Guard is “commonplace.”

A bill introduced in California in February could change that. Senate Bill 1274 would empower service members to sue their assailants in civilian court. California should make this overdue change, and lead the way for other states to do the same..

Sexual assault in the military is spinning out of control. Between 2016 and 2018, the rate of sexual assault and rape jumped by 40 percent. For female service members, the situation is even more dire: instances of on-the-job sexual violence against women in uniform doubled during this timeframe.

As things stand now, victims looking for justice won’t find it in the courts. This is thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court decision known as “Feres” issued 70 years ago. Feres prohibits tort suits against the military for injuries considered “incident to service.” Astonishingly, in subsequent rulings courts have interpreted sexual assault to be incident to service and have used Feres as a bar against prosecution of assailants. As a result, survivors’ suits are being tossed.