Combating sexual assault in the military

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Next up on The World and Everything In It: combatting assault in the military.

This one is listener-discretion. So just a warning before we go any further. If you have young ones within earshot or listening along with you today, you may want to press pause and come back to this story later.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Starting in 2012, Congress ordered the military to begin tracking the number of sexual assaults reported in its ranks each year. As a part of its record keeping, the Department of Defense also began conducting a separate survey of service members every two years.

BASHAM: The anonymous survey asks soldiers whether they’ve experienced sexual assault. And the latest numbers show that despite growing awareness and efforts to address the issue, sexual assault remains a significant problem. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg has our report.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: In March, Arizona Republican Senator Martha McSally made a very personal revelation. During her time serving in the United States Air Force, she was sexually assaulted.

MCSALLY: So like you, I am also a military sexual assault survivor. The perpetrators abused their positions of power in profound ways. And in one case I was prayed upon and then raped by a superior officer.

McSally told the Senate Armed Services subcommittee that she chose not to report the crime.

MCSALLY: Like so many women and men I didn’t trust the system at the time…  Like many victims, I felt the system was raping me all over again. But I didn’t quit. 

McSally said since then the military has made improvements.

MCSALLY: We’ve come a long way to stop military sexual assault but we have a long way to go.

New numbers gathered from the Pentagon’s latest anonymous survey support McSally’s claim.

The DOD estimates that in fiscal year 2018 more than 20,000 soldiers across all military branches experienced unwanted sexual contact. Those victims include 13,000 women and 7,500 men. Overall, that’s 6 percent of active duty women and slightly less than 1 percent of active duty men.

Two-thirds of the cases involved alcohol, and 85 percent of victims knew the perpetrator.

The survey results have drawn attention because they represent a 38 percent increase over 2016. But it’s not clear whether the increase is due to better reporting or more assaults.

Kyndra Rotunda is a professor of military and international law at Chapman University. She says the #MeToo movement could be partly responsible.

ROTUNDA: People are more likely to come forward today. It hasn’t been that way in the past.

Rotunda says the survey also doesn’t make clear what kind of sexual assaults have increased. The DOD survey uses the label “sexual assault” for a range of crimes.

ROTUNDA: And so those things are not really broken down in the report. What is the extent of the problem? Is it rape? Is it that or is it unwanted touching? How we address those two things may be really quite different.

Rotunda says whatever the reason for the jump, the results make clear the military still has a reporting problem. The Pentagon only has 7,000 reports of sexual assault in 2018. That means only 1 in 3 victims filed an official complaint.

Rotunda notes reporting remains low despite multiple reforms meant to make victims feel safe.

ROTUNDA: They developed a process where a victim can file either a restricted report or an unrestricted reports. So he or she would not have to be involved in an accusatory process. They wouldn’t have to testify. The military has now started a victim’s advocate program. They’ve even had special programs to train JAG officers to specifically focus on sexual assault and harassment cases.

Colonel Don Christensen is a former chief prosecutor for the Air Force. He now heads Protect our Defenders, a group advocating for military law reform. He argues the military’s pack mentality and its legal system stifle victims’ voices.

CHRISTENSEN: What I saw was all too often commanders sided with perpetrators, uh, they were more concerned about protecting those accused of committing sex assaults than they were of a prosecuting them.

Christensen says despite reforms to check commanders’ power, intimidation and revenge remain common tactics to silence victims. Of the 7,000 official sexual assault reports filed in 2018, only 300 actually went to trial.  

CHRISTENSEN: And of those 306, about 106, 108 actually ended up with a conviction for a sex offense. So the odds of somebody being convicted in the military after they’ve committed a rape or sexual assault is almost zero.

Christensen argues the military should begin bringing in outside prosecutors who specialize in sexual assault cases instead of using JAG officers assigned to commanders.

The military is continuing to review other reforms. Senator McSally’s story prompted the DOD to form a new task force. In April, the panel issued recommendations that include beefing up victim advocacy programs and making sexual harassment a prosecutable crime.

Ron Crews is a former military chaplain who now heads Chaplains Alliance for Religious Freedom. He says the military’s sexual assault problem is a cultural one.

And Christians everywhere have an opportunity to model respectful interaction between the sexes.

CREWS: We need young men and women of faith to take that stand to say not me and to speak truth into situations .There is another way for young men to treat young women, be the military or not, and that we are going to live by an example of the truth that is living within us.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.

(Photo/Creative Commons, Garrette)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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