Shanahan calls for reforms as military sexual assaults rise by 38%; highest for young women
WASHINGTON – Acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan called for sweeping changes in the way the military handles sexual assaults and harassment following a reported 38% increase in assaults from 2016 to 2018.
That spike in crime within the ranks comes after years of focused effort and resources to eradicate it.
The report surveyed Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine personnel in 2018. Based on the survey, there were an estimated 20,500 instances of unwanted sexual contact – an increase over the 14,900 estimated in the last biennial survey in 2016. Unwanted sexual contact ranges from groping to rape.
Enlisted female troops ages 17 to 24 were at the highest risk of being assaulted, said Nathan Galbreath, deputy director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. The Pentagon will target troops in that age range for prevention efforts, he said.
"We're very concerned about that," Galbreath said.
More than 85% of victims knew their assailant. Alcohol was involved in 62% of the total assaults.
Shanahan said in a statement Thursday he had reviewed the latest data and “it is clear that sexual assault and sexual harassment are persistent challenges.”
“To put it bluntly, we are not performing to the standards and expectations we have for ourselves or for each other. This is unacceptable. We cannot shrink from facing the challenge head on,” he said in the statement.
Shanahan said ways to address the problem include: seeking a stand-alone military crime of sexual harassment, developing new tools to measure the problem, launching a program to catch serial offenders, improving assessments of the character of military applicants, training for junior officers and junior enlisted leaders and focusing on prevention.
The latest report on sexual assaults requires Congress to intervene, said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Armed Services Committee's personnel panel.
"The department must accept that current programs are simply not working," Speier said. "Congress must lead the way in forcing the department to take more aggressive approaches to fighting this scourge.”
The Pentagon is set to release the recommendations of a task force formed at the urging of Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., to deal with sexual assaults in the military. McSally, a retired Air Force officer and fighter pilot, revealed during an Armed Services Committee meeting in March that she had been raped by a superior officer.
“The status quo is not working," New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said in a statement. "It's time for Congress to step up and bring accountability where the Department of Defense has repeatedly failed. The evidence is clear – we need to pass the Military Justice Improvement Act so that trained military prosecutors can handle these cases moving forward and give survivors confidence in the system.”
Based on the survey for 2018:
- Sexual assault rate for women was at the highest level, 6%, since 2006. The rate ranged from 4% in the Air Force to 11% in the Marine Corps.
- The odds of a woman experiencing a sexual assault were highest for the youngest women – from 17 to 20 years old. Those odds were 1 in 8.
- In 96% of the cases the alleged offender was a man. The offender most often was one person (64%), a military member (89%) and a friend or acquaintance (62%).
- Nearly 1 in 4 of all women experienced an “unhealthy climate” because of sexual harassment, which was up in the survey. About 16% of all women faced an "unhealthy climate" because of gender discrimination, also up.
"The results are disturbing and a clear indicator the Marine Corps must reexamine its sexual assault prevention efforts," the Marine Corps said in a statement. "Our Marines have a fundamental right to live and work in an environment free from sexual assault and harassment. The Marine Corps is committed to purging these criminal behaviors from our ranks, taking care of victims, and holding offenders accountable."
According to estimates in 2018, 6% of women in the military endured some form of sexual assault, and almost 1% of men were victimized. The Pentagon extrapolated the rate based on the results of the survey, which had a sample size of more than 100,000, with a 95% confidence level.
For women, assaults involving groping and crimes involving penetration both increased, Galbreath said. The type of assaults for men stayed relatively stable.
The rate of reporting sexual assault to authorities declined, a trend that might point to less confidence among troops.
"We know these are consistent problems, and the department is doing everything it can to address these issues across the military," said Air Force Lt. Col. Carla Gleason, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
Sexual assaults in the military have trended down since 2006, when 34,000 troops reported some type of sexual assault. Concerns rose anew in 2013 when the Pentagon released a report that estimated the number of sexual assaults increased 35% from 2010 to 2012, to 26,000 victims. The last survey of troops, in 2016, found that number had dropped to about 14,900.
Galbreath called the increase in 2018 a "tripwire" that should prompt the Pentagon to act.
In 2013, Congress hauled the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Capitol Hill and demanded answers. Top uniformed and civilian officials vowed a "zero tolerance" policy on sexual assault. Last month, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford repeated that goal in a memo to all troops and civilians employed by the military.
"Zero tolerance is the only acceptable metric," he said.
The rate of reporting sexual assault, an indicator of victims' confidence in the system to care for them and punish the crime, dropped in 2018 to 30% from 32% in 2016. In 2006, only 7% reported.
The surge in estimated assaults in 2013 prompted Congress to intervene, legislating changes in how the military prosecutes sex crimes and cares for victims.
The increase in assaults should alarm Pentagon leadership, said Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault in the military.
Christensen's group and some members of Congress have called for prosecution of sex crimes to be turned over to career prosecutors rather than relying on military commanders to decide which cases to pursue. The Pentagon has opposed that change.
"What’s frustrating is that the brass keeps refusing to consider any bold changes like reforming the military justice system," said Christensen, the former top prosecutor for the Air Force. "How many more men and women have to be assaulted before they make the changes and hold people accountable? How many times do you have to fail?"
Christensen laid blame on Pentagon civilian and military leaders for the problem, saying offenders have been given a green light because so few face court-martial for sexual assault.
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