The U.S. Military’s Continuing Sexual Assault Problem
The Pentagon says the sexual assault problem in the military is getting better. Critics say: not so fast.
The Pentagon said a broad push to prevent sexual assault within its ranks was paying off, pointing to a new survey showing a drop in the numbers of troops reporting unwanted sexual contact. But victims’ support groups said the sexual assault epidemic was far from cured, with soldiers who reported being assaulted facing the real prospect of reprisals — and an alarmingly small number of cases even being brought to trial.
The number of troops experiencing what the Pentagon calls “unwanted sexual contact” fell from 26,000 in 2012 to 19,000 in 2014, a decrease of roughly 25 percent, according to a new Pentagon report based on an anonymous survey of service members around the world.
Still, the problem is far from fixed: The same survey showed that 62 percent of the women who reported a sexual assault perceived some form of social and professional retaliation — a number that has remained unchanged from two years ago. “These findings are further evidence that despite significant effort from the department, social and professional retaliation remain an area of concern for survivors,” the Pentagon report said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters that he would be issuing four new directives to address the persistent fear of reprisals, adding to the 28 others he has already issued in the past year to stem sexual violence in the armed forces. The new measures include training commanders and junior noncommissioned officers to be aware that retaliation is a punishable offense.
Victims are right to worry: The Pentagon said that it has not yet punished or prosecuted anyone accused of retaliating against a soldier reporting a possible sex crime. Congress passed a law in December 2013 making that form of retaliation illegal, but defense officials said they hadn’t had enough time yet to collect complaints or open investigations.
Protect Our Defenders, a nonprofit advocacy group that promotes the rights of military sexual-assault victims, also criticized the Pentagon’s poor prosecution rates in sex crime cases.
Of the 5,983 reports of sexual assault in the last year — an 8 percent increase over the previous year — only 910 cases went to prosecution, the group said in a statement.
The Defense Department “shouldn’t be patting themselves on the back saying they’ve solved the problem because they haven’t,” Don Christensen, the group’s president and a former Air Force prosecutor, told Foreign Policy.
The report raises new questions about the U.S. military’s ability to prevent and punish sexual violence within its ranks, a long-simmering debate that is virtually certain to flare up again in the coming days as senators begin weighing President Barack Obama’s nominee to become the next defense secretary. Obama will announce the nominee — widely expected to be former deputy defense secretary Ashton Carter — Friday at a White House event.
The report itself provides evidence of just how far the military has to go.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has pushed legislation that would give civilian prosecutors the authority to investigate military sex crimes, rather than leaving that authority solely in the hands of uniformed officers who might choose to cover up a crime or pardon an offender. Gillibrand is virtually certain to ask Carter about whether he would support such a change during his nomination hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
While the measure has broad support among other senators and victims’ groups, it is opposed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and powerful lawmakers like Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the outgoing chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Critics of the bill argue that taking the prosecutions of such crimes out of the military’s chain of command would make it harder for commanders to maintain order in war zones. Canada, Britain, and Australia already have independent prosecutors to investigate and prosecute sexual assault allegations in their militaries, making the United States a bit of an outlier.
In a June 2013 congressional hearing on sexual assault in the military, Gillibrand told the assembled panel of the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff that they had collectively lost the faith of their troops in failing to crack down on rape and other forms of sexual violence.
“You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you that you will actually bring justice in these cases,” Gillibrand said. “They’re afraid to report. They think their careers will be over. They fear retaliation. They fear being blamed. That is our biggest challenge, right there.”
The Pentagon report issued Thursday says victims can complain about retribution to their commander, seek to be placed into protective custody, or even ask to be transferred to another base. But Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has resisted attempts to take away the prosecutorial authority from military commanders.
“Removing commanders from the military justice process sends the message to everyone in the military that there is a lack of faith in the officer corps,” Dempsey wrote in a May 20, 2013, letter to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Conveyance of a message that commanders cannot be trusted will only serve to undermine good order and discipline.”
Having independent prosecutors make decisions on pursuing sexual assault complaints would reduce victims’ concerns about retaliation, said Christensen of Protect Our Defenders.
Even when well-meaning commanders want to address such concerns, they can be accused of unlawful command influence under the current Uniform Code of Military Justice — the law that governs crime in the military — said Christensen, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who served as the service’s chief prosecutor for four years. “If you take the decision away from the command structure, it’ll diminish that concern quite a bit,” he said, referring to victims’ fear of retaliation.
“Retaliation is such a tough issue,” said Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, at the news conference today. “We would hope that an individual who has come forward and reported and then has been retaliated against would tell someone, whether in the chain of command or outside. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of statistics yet on what has been referred to investigation. We hope to have more evidence of that in the annual report” that will go to Congress early next year, he said.
The Pentagon is collecting data on retributions and will have more information on that when it sends its next report to Congress early next year, Nathan Galbreath, an advisor to the sexual assault prevention office, said at the same news conference.
Still, finding and punishing retaliation would be tough, Christensen said.
“The biggest problem is the very, very subtle forms of retaliation in ways that allows them to get away with it,” he said. Commanders and supervisors can add words and phrases to a person’s evaluation form that can sidetrack the victim’s career, he added.