An insider's view of combating rape in the military

— Photo submitted by Captain Jesse Sommer

Throwing himself out of a plane: As a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, Jesse Sommer takes training jumps roughly once a month, wearing combat equipment on his back. His main role, however, is as an attorney for the newly-established Special Victims’ Council program, providing legal support to victims of rape and sexual assault in the military.

— Photo submitted by Captain Jesse Sommer

Smiling after a safe landing: Captain Jesse Sommer, a New Scotland native, knew that he wanted to help shape social policy, and calls his role with the Judge Advocate Generals Court — JAG — a way to contribute in a positive way. “No one can take away the trauma that’s been done,” he said of rape and assault victims. “But I can help mitigate it.”

Editor’s note: The Pentagon last month released a study showing that, of 5,061 reported cases of rape and sexual assault in the military in 2013, just 484 went to trial with 376 convictions. In releasing the report, Secretary of Defense Timothy Charles “Chuck” Hagel said victims were growing more confident in the system as reports of sexual assault were up 50 percent since the year before. The 2012 Pentagon survey had estimated 26,000 men and women were sexually assaulted and 3,374 cases were reported.

Kirsten Gillibrand, one of New York’s senators, had sponsored a bill to have independent military prosecutors oversee sexual assault cases rather than a victim’s commander; her bill failed narrowly in March. Gillibrand told The New York Times that the Pentagon report “should send chills down people’s spines” since less than one of 10 reported cases proceeded to trial. She also noted that the recent report did not include a total estimated number of crimes committed.

Against that backdrop, The Enterprise this week is profiling an insider and his view of how the military is handling the problem of sexual assault.

NEW SCOTLAND — New Scotland native Jesse Sommer, now a captain in the United States Army, says the military is at the forefront of a very important social issue — acknowledging victims of rape and sexual assault and helping them along the road to recovery.

“Given my leanings, I could have been the first to criticize what often seems to be an ancient and rigid culture,” said Sommer of the military. “But the fact is, just like the military was the first to integrate, and just like it repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, it is now leading the way in another important social issue.”

Sommer, a captain with the 82nd Airborne Division, is a paratrooper, and also serves as the chief of legal assistance, overseeing two other attorneys and a paralegal. But, he said, his core function at this point is serving as an attorney with the Special Victims’ Council Program, which officially launched in January.

“Right now, there is no question that there is a problem in the military regarding the occurrence of rape and sexual assault,” said Sommer. “The reality is, it seems like there’s a crisis culture-wide.”

Sommer, who wanted to help shape policy, has found his job very fulfilling.

Sommer grew up in New Scotland, where his mother, Holly Cheever, is a veterinarian, and his father, Dean Sommer, is a lawyer.

After graduating from Clayton A. Bouton High School, Sommer received a bachelor’s degree in government from Wesleyan University, and then worked in New York City for several years.

He worked at a talk-radio network, and said the host often interviewed what he called “power players,” the people who had a direct impact on policy and the overall social conversation.

“One of the things I started realizing, was if someone was going to be making policy, it might as well be me,” said Sommer.

He said he began looking at how to achieve the necessary credibility and decided business and law seemed to be the languages of influence.

“I didn’t know if I should cut my teeth in the business or the law world, so I decided to enroll in a strenuous dual degree program,” he said.

Sommer received both a master’s degree in business administration and a juris doctor degree from American University in Washington, D.C., graduating in 2011.

When he was in the programs, though, he realized he did not necessarily want to be a part of either of those professions.

“I was trying to find some degree of meaning in it all,” he said. “I was asking myself, ‘What can I positively change? How can I be a positive contributor?’”

It was then, said Sommer, that he began to look to the military as a way to give back.

“I’m this spoiled dude from upstate New York, and I wanted to know how I could demonstrate that I had some value other than a means to my own narcissistic ends,” he said.

He decided that he want to try to become a member of the Judge Advocate Generals court — JAG — to provide legal guidance to commanders and provide defense or prosecution for crimes.

“It seemed like a good way to ensure the rule of law was applied to the law of war,” said Sommer.

The process to get accepted was extremely competitive and Sommer said he pulled out all the stops, ingratiating himself to members of the JAG Corps and begging the deans of his schools for recommendations.

After graduating from American University, he moved back to the Albany area and practiced law for 10 months, while he worked out with a personal trainer to get in shape for boot camp.

Suppressing fear

In 2012, said Sommer, he was given the “distinct honor and privilege” of beginning his military career and being assigned to the historic 82nd Airborne Division, known as “America’s airborne infantry unit.”

Even though he is a member of the JAG Corps, he said it is really the unit a person is assigned to that defines him, and he feels lucky to have been assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division.

“We are America’s first responders,” said Sommer. “Whenever something happens in the world and the military has to be engaged, the 82nd is the first in; they are wheels off the ground in 18 hours or less.”

Sommer said that, as of now, he has made about 20 jumps, some from a C130, a four-engine turboprop plane; some from a C17, a large military transport aircraft; and some from a Blackhawk helicopter.

“An average of around once a month or so, I throw myself out of an airplane with my combat equipment strapped to me,” said Sommer.

The first 10 jumps or so were very nerve-wracking, he said, and he would call his family before each one to tell them that he loved them in case he never got to talk to them again.

“After that, it was amazing how routine it became,” Sommer said. “The military does an amazing job, through routine, of suppressing the fear complex.”

Paratroopers, he said, require nearly constant training.

“It’s no easy task to jump out of an airplane with combat equipment attached to you and hit the ground running and ready to fight,” he said.

Thus far, said Sommer, he hasn’t had to jump out of an airplane and into battle, and he doesn’t foresee himself needing to do so in the near future.

“If there’s ever some sort of operation that requires a judge advocate to be on the front line, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong,” he said.

The role he’ll be playing in the event of conflict, he said, is to support the first responders.

Judge advocate’s role

As a judge advocate, Sommer said, he mainly assists soldiers with all sorts of legal issues, including consumer protection, landlord disputes, and will drafting.

“A lot of what we do, unfortunately, is guiding people through the marital separation and divorce process,” he said. “We basically ensure that military personnel won’t have to deal with getting a private attorney.”

Sommer explained that, in any criminal prosecution, both in the civilian world and the Army, there is a defense counsel, and a trial counsel. In the Army, he said, the trial counsel works for the government.

The government is the client of the trial counsel; it is trying to get a conviction of the accused, or defendant.

“The weird thing about that is, from the viewpoint of the government, it is upset with the fact that someone — the accused — had the audacity to break government laws,” Sommer said. “What that meant, though, was that sometimes the victim’s interests weren’t being held as sacred as those of the government.”

The military, he said, decided it needed attorneys to represent the legal interests of the victim, and make sure the victim of a rape or sexual assault had the guidance and support to not just participate in the justice process, but start the road to recovery with a helping hand.

To that end, said Sommer, the Special Victims’ Council program was started, by United States Secretary of Defense Charles Timothy “Chuck” Hagel, on Nov. 1, 2013, and was officially “stood up,” or launched, in January.

“Even before college campuses started realizing the sort of pathological culture of sexual assault, Hagel decided to issue this policy,” said Sommer. “The military can be a very powerful tool in advancing social justice.”

Sommer credits the program’s manager, Colonel Jay McKee, with providing constant in-person and phone support, and Colonel John Ohlweiler, staff judge advocate of the 82nd, with allowing Sommer to create his own role in his division.

Under the Special Victims’ Council program, according to Sommer, the moment that someone alleges that there has been an assault, she or he is assigned counsel, and the attorney will hold their hand throughout the entire process.

Providing a shield

Sommer, one of 50 attorneys in the program, has been assigned 33 clients since it began.

“That’s a lot of victims of rape and assault,” he said.

“We get our clients, and, generally speaking, the interests of our clients do align with the interests of the government,” said Sommer. “Both want the perpetrator to be punished, but there can also be slight nuances.”

There may be a situation, for example, where there is “collateral misconduct,” meaning the victim of the assault had also been involved in illegal behavior when the incident occurred.

“Maybe the victim was underage and had been drinking when the assault occurred,” said Sommer. “Or maybe the victim had been involved in an adulterous affair, which is illegal in the military.

“In those cases, when clients have an attorney with whom they can speak and have the utmost confidentially, the attorney ends up being a bulwark between the client and government.”

Sommer said the attorney facilitates conversations, but also ends up being a shield.

“We protect them from the government if the government also wants to take action against them,” he said. “Admittedly, we don’t have to fight the government very often, but, when it does happen, clients are grateful to have someone they can trust.”

The trust between the attorney and the client, said Sommer, is the most important aspect.

Having one specific attorney assigned to the victim allows that attorney to assist the victim with all sorts of issues, related to the assault or not.

For example, said Sommer, there are cases where the accused might be the victim’s spouse. The attorney can help not just with the criminal case, but with a divorce, breaking a lease, and helping the victim return back to using a birth surname.

“By assisting them with these other legal issues, we build trust and support, which can also help with cooperation in a criminal case,” said Sommer.

The attorney can also work with the victim’s commander to advocate for leniency in the event that the victim is not “up to par” during drills and exercises.

“When an individual is assaulted, there are a lot of factors affecting the person’s well-being, psyche, and circumstances,” said Sommer.

He said the commanders in the military have really embraced the Special Victims’ Council.

“I was given a lot of room to establish my role here,” said Sommer. “In so doing, I’ve been briefing commanders — it’s remarkable that the military has been so serious about this program.

“What’s notable is that these victims, both male and female, are stepping forward because they do finally feel like the military is taking them seriously.”

Sometimes, said Sommer, the victims aren’t even looking to have the accused go to prison, and they don’t want to testify. Sometimes they just want the person stripped of their rank and kicked out of the military.

But the government, said Sommer, wants to prosecute, because it wants justice among the ranks.

“I can work with the trial prosecutor to come up with a package that meets the needs of both the client and the government,” Sommer said.

He said he has been involved in cases where the accused has been acquitted and in cases where the accused has been found guilty.

“I’ve found that the way that the victim feels about the outcome does not depend on the finding, but on how they were treated throughout the case,” said Sommer.

“We don’t want the victim to feel as though they were the one on trial, and most importantly, we want them to have someone who believes what they say,” he said.

Collaborative issue

Rape and sexual assault, said Sommer, is one of the most important issues for the military to address.

“This is something that is destroying morale and minimizing battle readiness,” he said. “You simply can’t worry that the person with whom you share the trenches is going to attack you.”

It is also important for the military to take the problem seriously in order to allow for a healthy and collaborative relationship between the victim and the military, which Sommer said he believes is “only fair.”

“Whatever job someone performs in the military, the fact is, they signed up to serve,” he said. “That takes a lot of sacrifice and courage, and the military is aggressively trying to show members that they know that they owe them.”

Right now, said Sommer, the military is still in the process of stabilizing the program, with the attorneys providing feedback from the field so McKee can compile a list of standard operating procedures.

“This is a much more collaborative issue than I’d imagined and we’re all working together on the program,” he said.

“It is very fulfilling,” Sommer concluded. “I’m not going to lie, it’s a little messed up, with the stories you hear. No one can undo the trauma that’s been done to these people, but I can help mitigate it.”

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