Did Scandal 's Military Rape Episode Go Too Far?

Photo: Nicole Wilder/ABC.
Last night's Scandal addressed a topic that's been a long time coming: rape in the military. When the vice president, Susan Ross, went to visit a naval base, she met a young ensign named Amy Martin who was covered in bruises. Ross asked for a tour of Martin's quarters, during which the ensign confessed that she'd been raped by an admiral. Ross took Martin back to the White House, where she confronted President Fitz and told him to do something about it. 

"One in three women in the military has been subjected to sexual assault," Vice President Ross said, a statistic that bears repeating. "If, God forbid, a servicewoman accuses a man of rape, and he's found not guilty, she gets prosecuted for filing a false report...You were in the Navy, did you know that?" she asks Fitz.

"I didn't," Fitz admitted, indicating a much larger problem, because the president should definitely know this. His hands were tied, he explained: "But, what I do know is that over 200 years of historical precedent tells me that it is not our place to intervene in the military judicial system...The military has its own system for prosecuting crimes — rape included."

Meanwhile, Olivia Pope tried to seek justice for Ensign Martin, who told her that "There's no evidence...no witnesses. I just want to go back to work." Her accused rapist, Admiral John Hawley, was not only friends with the president, he was, to quote Quinn, "celebrated, decorated, pretty much untouchable." 

Things were further complicated by the fact that Ensign Martin got pregnant when she was raped, and she told Pope she wanted to have an abortion. Pope asked her to wait until she was eight weeks along so they could do a DNA test and have evidence to convict Admiral Hawley, but Martin couldn't wait that long. 

After Pope's team was denied access to the base's logs from that night because it's a "matter of national security," Pope called Fitz in disgust. "Do you know that if you're a member of the military, you can't sue the U.S. government if you're raped because it's considered the same as an injury in the battlefield...an occupational hazard?" she said.

"I did know that; it's the Feres Doctrine," responded the president, who appeared to have brushed up on military law and protocol.

The Feres decision was passed in 1950 after a landmark Supreme Court case that, according to the Baltimore Sun, "[C]losed off service members' access to the civil courts...[It] was made in large part out of deference to the military's operational imperative; it would be hard to win a war if troops were bringing lawsuits against their commanders for every order that got them injured. Unfortunately, over the years, the courts have broadly defined the phrase 'incident to service' to mean anything and everything that happens to an individual while serving in the military, including rape."

While Fitz publicly hid behind 200 years of protocol and a 65-year-old Supreme Court decision that has been manipulated so that sexual assault could be considered an "occupational hazard," he privately had White House Press Secretary, Abby Whelan, get the necessary base logs and security footage to prove that Admiral Hawley was guilty. 

The matter garnered media and public attention, of course, and the episode closed with two press conferences. During the first, Whelan addressed the media in the White House press room. "Is the president finally able to acknowledge the very clear and disturbing rape culture pervading the United States military today?" a reporter asked.

Short answer: No, he wasn't. Whelan could only offer a vague response about how Fitz would work with the Secretary of Defense and joint chiefs of staff to assess the problem and "find solutions." 

Scandal was able to offer a slightly more hopeful outlook, although it was still bittersweet. During a campaign rally in Virginia, First Lady Mellie Grant denounced her husband's actions in Ensign Martin's case, and said that if she's elected to the Senate, "I'm going to make it my mission to create an independent judicial body devoted exclusively to to sexual-assault claims. It's wrong that the members of our military can't seek justice without fear of persecution."

It's wrong, but unfortunately, members of the Senate and Department of Defense have been trying to do something about it for years, only to be stymied when bills like the Military Justice Improvement Act are voted down. Meanwhile, small steps have been made to ensure that survivors have more resources to report sexual assaults and seek support. The Department of Defense has partnered with RAINN to establish the Safe Helpline to provide crisis support service to military personnel.  The Military Rape Crisis Center is a survivor-run organization that provides free services to other survivors. 

Ensign Amy Martin was able to get the justice she deserved, but there are many military personnel out there who won't receive the same outcome.  Did last night's Scandal go too far? No, the national spotlight needs to shine even brighter on this extremely important issue. 
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