TAMPA, Fla. — It's estimated that 20,000 sexual assaults occur in the military every year… and most of them go unreported, But now a historic new law that goes into effect January 1, is focused on getting victims help and justice.
Jacob Manning is retired from the U.S. Army, and is a military sexual assault survivor. Manning says he suffered for decades after being brutally sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers during a hazing ritual while at Fort Drum.
"I had been beat so bad, from that beating I suffered from narcolepsy and seizures, and the inability to have children," said Manning.
Manning said he tried to report the crime to his sergeant, but nothing was done.
"He said, 'Are you saying something or are you saying that you’re gay?' And I was like no, and he said, 'You’re new to the unit, just keep your mouth shut and move forward.' My whole career went downhill," said Manning.
According to the Department of Defense, there are an estimated 20,000 military sexual assaults a year. But in 2019 only 138 resulted in convictions. That’s less than one percent of victims getting justice.
"The military justice sentencing system is really no different than George Washington's in 1775. All the reforms we’ve seen in the civilian world have not been caught up in the military," said Col. Don Christensen, founder of "Protect Our Defenders."
For 30 years, Christensen has been a lawyer for military sexual assault victims. He also runs "Protect Our Defenders," an organization dedicated to fighting for survivors and advocating for better laws to protect them.
Laws, like the monumental Vanessa Guillen Act that was just signed by the president and takes effect on January 1, 2022.
"What event really pushed us over the top sadly was the murder of Vanessa Guillen. That really highlighted the failures of the military justice system," said Christensen.
Under the new law, military commanders will no longer be involved in military sexual harassment or sexual assault investigations. The decision to prosecute sexual assault and sexual harassment will be made outside the service member's chain of command and they will be offered protection against retaliation.
"I would say this is the most significant justice reform in our nation’s history when it to the military," said Christensen.
Christensen says while he and others have worked decades trying to make change, things erupted after news broke of the murder of U.S. Army specialist Vanessa Guillen.
The 20-year-old was stationed at Fort Hood. Last year, her body was found dismembered two months after she went missing from the base. The suspect was a fellow soldier who she had told her family was sexually harassing her.
"They weren’t afraid to take a bullet for our country but they were afraid to report sexual harassment or misconduct, and it's quite troubling," said Natalie Khawam, a Tampa attorney representing the Guillen family.
Khawam was one of many pushing for this new law to pass.
"It's a monumental day, it's actually historical because our military has never had these protections before," said Khawam.
Protections than Manning never got. He says he struggled with addiction for years and made several suicide attempts while suffering from military sexual trauma. But, he says his faith in Jesus saved him and helped him find forgiveness. He's sharing his story to bring hope to survivors and says he believes the new law will give survivors the hope to heal.
"So they don’t have to go through the avenues of the drug abuse, the alcohol abuse, the self-mutilation, and all the other traumas that come with it. Yes, there will be trauma, but there’s hope that they can get it fixed early on instead of waiting years and years and letting it boil up inside and destroy your life," said Manning.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can receive confidential help by calling the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 800-656-4673.