The Defense Department is seeing an increase in sexual assault concentrated on young servicewomen, said Elizabeth Van Winkle, DOD’s executive director for force resiliency.
Van Winkle spoke following today’s release of DOD’s Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military.
The greatest increase was in sexual assaults directed against service women ages 17 to 24. “It is a call to action for us,” she said in an interview.
The information is this report mirrors data from a report released earlier this year on sexual assault at the nation’s military academies. The increases are across all services.
Progress in Reporting
Van Winkle is not discouraged, as she has seen progress in these issues since she started working for the department more than a decade ago. “The most dramatic progress we’ve seen is among those service members who come forward to report,” she said.
Sexual assault is a very violating, fragmenting incident that is completely outside the control of the individual, Van Winkle said. DOD understands this and has put in place policies and procedures to give victims the control to decide what to do. Restricted reporting allows victims to receive help they need to deal with attacks. Unrestricted reporting brings in military justice officials. This is the heart of the department’s victims-centered approach to reporting.
DOD wants to hold offenders appropriately accountable. “Our military system must be structured in a way that allows [those who have been sexually assaulted] to come forward and report,” Van Winkle said. “We’ve made a lot of changes to our system over the past 10 years, many as a result of changes made by Congress.”
This has had results. A decade ago, roughly 7 percent of those who were sexually assaulted came forward to make a report. That number has risen to 30 percent today. This increase, she believes, is due to the changes in the military justice system and in the support offered to victims.
She also believes the increased senior leader attention to the issue has helped, with commanders at all levels understanding the serious nature of this crime, and its effects on not just individuals, but units and capabilities.
While the prevalence rate went up in this reporting cycle, it remains lower than on the first report 10 years ago, Van Winkle said.
DOD needs commanders at all levels to be strong leaders, and the instruction in what it means to be a strong military leader must start early to address sexual assaults of younger service members, she said. “The ideal state is where we instill in them what it is to be a strong leader in the military,” Van Winkle said. “What that means is you stand up for everybody — regardless of rank, regardless of age. A leader does not go along with poor behavior simply because they are scared to stand up.”
The department also needs senior leaders to encourage young men and women to demonstrate the moral courage to stop behavior that leads to sexual assault, she said.
Changing Attitudes, Behavior
“The challenge we have is every generation we have coming into the military is new and different and coming from a different place,” Van Winkle said. “We have a responsibility as a military to change the behavior of our service members as they come in, to teach them what is right and wrong in the military, and what our expectations are for them no matter where they come from.
“That is our charge and we take it very seriously,” she said. “What we are finding is we have not identified the strategy that works with this 17 to 24 year old group and what resonates with them.”
Social media has changed attitudes in the newest generation of service members and that leads to different ways of interaction, Van Winkle said. They have different life experiences as they enter the services, and this requires they receive different instruction, she added.
Sexual Assault Accountability and Investigations Task Force
Van Winkle also discussed recommendations from the Sexual Assault Accountability and Investigations Task Force. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan directed the task force to look at the military justice system to identify additional improvements. There has already been great changes, many as part of the Military Justice Act of 2016.
But the task force is more. It contains prevention experts, military justice experts and leaders of the military criminal investigative services. The service sexual assault prevention and response leaders are also members of the group. “We have a very good group of individuals that came together and basically put everything on the table as to what are the additional improvements and reforms that we want to make above and beyond the reforms we’ve already done,” Van Winkle said.
The group examined every step of the military justice process, looking for ways to improve the system for victims, while protecting the rights of those accused, she said.
The group also looked at the roles of commanders, working from the military standpoint that commanders are key to improving the situation, Van Winkle said. “Our commanders are instilled with an amazing responsibility to uphold good order and discipline in the ranks at any location at all times 24/7,” she said. “We started with what are the tools, guidance and authorities our commanders need in order to make the best decisions in this space.”
Task Force Recommendations
Based upon the task force’s recommendation, DOD will be taking steps to elevate sexual harassment as a stand-alone crime within the military justice system, Van Winkle said. This will highlight the importance commander place on combating sexual assault and allow for better tracking of the effectiveness of efforts, she explained.
Another recommendation deals with providing training to commanders and military justice officials at all levels to ensure the system is just, impartial and empathetic, Van Winkle said.
The task force also addressed a shortfall within the defense counsel system, she said. Defense counsels often do not have defense-specific investigators. Van Winkle said the task force recommended the establishment of these investigators to support defense counsels and ensure due process for those accused.
The task force will continue to meet as an executive council to track changes and plan new ways to move forward, she said.
Van Winkle said she desperately wants to eliminate sexual assault and sexual harassment, but is realistic that the military is not a perfect world. She wants all service members treated with dignity and respect, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it has real-world implications on the defense of the homeland.
Van Winkle served as acting assistant secretary of defense for readiness for a time and said she saw the corrosive effects of sexual assaults on units. “Unit cohesion [and] unit trust is critical to our ability to meet our missions,” she said. “These behaviors are so counter to good order and discipline and completely fragment cohesion and trust that the units have.”