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Sexual assaults on young servicewomen on the rise, DOD report finds

U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan passes the colors to the incoming commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, Army Gen. Richard D. Clarke, during the change of command ceremony, Tampa, Florida, March 29, 2019. (DoD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro)

Sexual assaults against female troops have increased by 44% since 2016, with the highest increase affecting junior enlisted servicemenbers, according to a Pentagon report released Thursday.

“The results of this report are not acceptable by any standard,” Elizabeth Van Winkle, the executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency at the Defense Department, told reporters Thursday at the Pentagon. “We will learn from what our women and men in uniform told us this year and adjust our strategies. I remain optimistic that we will course correct.”

The Defense Department’s 2018 report on sexual assault in the military included results from the 2018 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active-Duty Members, which found 20,500 servicemembers experienced sexual assault within the past year — an increase of 38% from 14,900 in fiscal year 2016 when the survey was last conducted.

The report found 6.2% of servicewomen experienced sexual assault in 2018, a 44% increase from the rate of 4.3% in fiscal year 2016.

The increase in sexual assault was mostly among women servicemembers between the ages of 17 to 24 and junior enlisted women, “who are already at the highest risk for sexual assault,” according to a Pentagon document highlighting the report’s findings.

“This increase is absolutely unacceptable,” said Rear Adm. Ann Burkhardt, the director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.

According to the Pentagon, the report found most of the perpetrators were in the junior enlisted ranks of E-3 to E-5 and they were often the same rank or just above that of the victim. The report also found that 24% of women and 6% of men experienced sexual harassment in fiscal year 2018, which was a significant increase from 2016, said Ashlea Klahr, director of health and resilience research of the Office of People Analytics at the Pentagon.

But one in three servicemembers reported their sexual assaults to a Defense Department authority, about the same as fiscal year 2016, according to the report.

The DOD received 6,053 reports of sexual assault by servicemembers for incidents that occurred during military service. The rate for women reporting decreased from 43% to 37% between fiscal years 2016 and 2018 and the rate for men reporting stayed the same for those years at 17%.

The report findings showed 62% of the “most serious sexual assault situations involved alcohol use by the victim or the alleged offender as reported by the victim.”

The Marines had the highest rate of sexual assault for women at 10.7%. Klahr said 39% of active-duty women servicemembers are younger than 25 years old, which is the most at-risk group for sexual assault. In the Marine Corps, it is 60%.

“So certainly age doesn’t account for all of it, but it is when we’re seeing the largest increases in our youngest folks and the proportion of women in the Marine Corps are primarily this young group, we believe that that explains at least part of why they might be seeing such a significant increase,” Klahr said.

The Marine Corps released a statement Thursday about the report’s findings that read: “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.”

Shanahan responds

Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan on Thursday responded to the report findings with the actions that the DOD will take to address the sexual assault in the military.

“To put it bluntly, we are not performing to the standards and expectations we have for ourselves or for each other,” he wrote in a memo. “This is unacceptable. We cannot shrink from facing the challenge head on. We must, and will, do better,” he wrote in the memo.

Shanahan’s reaction also follows a sexual assault and harassment report for the military service academies that came out earlier this year and the recently established Sexual Assault Accountability and Investigation Task Force that was put together in coordination with Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz. In March, McSally said during a hearing on sexual assault in the military that she was raped when she served as a pilot in the Air Force.

Shanahan wrote the first action by the Defense Department is to take steps to make sexual harassment a stand-alone military crime.

They are also going to launch a “Catch a Serial Offender Program” that will improve the identification of repeat offenders, the memo stated. It will launch in the summer, Burkhardt said, and it will “allow our servicemembers who choose to make a restricted report confidentially [and] identify information about the alleged incident to investigators.”

Reactions from Congress

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., admonished Pentagon leadership Thursday for its failure to rein in the issue of sexual assault within its ranks, telling a top Army leader the problem was just as bad now as it was five years ago when she began advocating for reforms.

“It is unconscionable,” Gillibrand told Army Gen. James McConville, the service’s vice chief of staff, who was appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee during a hearing to consider his nomination for chief of staff.

Gillibrand accused Pentagon leaders of playing lip service to the issue and not taking concrete actions to address the problems, which she said stem from command climates where senior officers have failed to take the issue seriously.

Gillibrand has long advocated for changing how the military handles sexual assault cases. She wants commanders removed from the process in favor of handing such cases to career prosecutors to decide whether they warrant further investigation or legal action. She said victims, who tend to be lower ranking than their assailants, have often told her that they did not report their attack because they did not have confidence higher-ups would support them.

“What angers me the most, general [is] for the last 25 years, every secretary of defense has told this body, told this public that they have zero tolerance for sexual assault,” said Gillibrand, who is seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 2020. “I am tired of excuses. I am tired of statements from commanders stating zero tolerance. I am tired of the statement I get over and over from the chain of command – “We’ve got this, ma’am. We’ve got this.” You don’t have it. You are failing us.”

She asked McConville to treat the issue as if his own daughter – an active-duty Army captain assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division – had experienced a sexual assault.

“Yes, senator,” replied McConville, who was heaped with praise throughout the hearing and appeared poised to be confirmed.

Retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, once the service’s top prosecutor who is now president of the Protect Our Defenders organization that works to end sexual violence in the military, echoed Gillibrand’s outrage over the report. He called for lawmakers to remove commanders from the decision making process on sexual assault cases.

“The numbers are shocking,” Christensen, who retired from the Air Force after 23 year in 2014, said in a statement. “It is time for Congress to stop giving the failing military leadership the benefit of doubt and pass real reform empowering military prosecutors. Enough is enough.”

Stars and Stripes staff writer Corey Dickstein contributed to this report.


© 2019 the Stars and Stripes

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