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Kaitlynne Hetrick | May 18, 2020

Read: DoD’s Annual Sexual Assault Report Still Shows the Need for Culture Change

This year, Sexual Assault Awareness Month came to a close with the publication of the Department of Defense’s Annual Sexual Assault Report. I remember attending the yearly briefings when I was active duty, and I remember the complaints that immediately came when the date of our next SAPR training was released. As a sexual assault survivor, I both appreciated and despised these briefings. I appreciated them because I had hoped that the brief would prevent at least one person from feeling that pain. I despised the training because it reminded me of my own experience and because of how many of my shipmates would laugh and joke at the scenarios and information. 

For fiscal year 2019, sexual assault reports totaled 7,825, an increase of 3%. When broken down by branch, the Air Force has seen the highest percentage increase at 9% (1,683) while the Army has seen the lowest, 2% (3,219). The Navy saw a 4.5% (1,774) increase while the Marine Corps’ total of 1,149 cases was a 6% decrease.

Restricted reporting was up 17% (2126), and one of the most interesting new additions to the report was the first numbers for DoD’s CATCH, a Serial Offender program (CATCH). This program allows survivors to still make a restricted report but also submit information, anonymously, to help identify repeat offenders. The program officially launched in August 2019 and has had 239 reports so far, with five matches. CATCH allows survivors to have more information before deciding to change their restricted report to unrestricted. 

Sexual Harassment complaints were up 10% from 2018, and one of the most glaring pieces of the report is the 172-page annex titled “2019 Military Service Gender Relations Focus Groups Overview Report.” Focus groups consisted of 493 individuals from every branch across ten DoD installations. The report included many accounts that we hear too often.

When I think of my own time in the military, it was amazing, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t faced with my own uncomfortable experiences. There was the supervisor that shamelessly hit on me, despite both of us being married, and then refused to allow me to take my lunches when he found out I was pregnant. When I talk to other women veterans, I find that more often than not, many of us have these stories and classify them the same way. I was called prude, as well as other names, for refusing to go out drinking with the rest of the work center, or when it came to the boundaries I set out of respect for myself and my marriage. Congress should require that the Department of Defense report on how they are improving command climate and the elimination of sexism within the military culture. 

One comment that stood out from the focus group report was:

“On a couple occasions, I’ve had somebody grope me and I almost flipped [explicit]. They kind of gave me a slap on the wrist and this person just got away with it, but I’m the one that’s getting chewed out because I almost… I probably would’ve went to Captain’s Mast, probably been put out [of] the Navy, really.”

Navy, Junior Enlisted, Female

In IAVA’s most recent survey, 73% of members that reported their sexual assault experienced some sort of retaliation. This number is more than unacceptable, and several comments within the focus group report support this number and showcase why sexual assault is underreported in the military. 

Only 31% of IAVA members that experienced sexual assault reported the crime. Of those that did not report, they listed their reasons for not reporting as fear of retaliation by their peers or commander, concern about the impact on their career, and doubt that their commander would believe them. This is why IAVA believes that a trained military prosecutor should have the authority to make the decision to move forward with a sexual assault case, instead of a commander. Forty-four percent of those that stated they experienced sexual assault while in the military in IAVA’s 2020 survey said they would have been more likely to report their assault if this was the case. 

I grew up the daughter of a former sailor, and my brother joined the Marine Corps when I was still in high school. The “military culture,” as they called it, was heavily explained to me and so, when I joined the Navy, I classified many things as being “the way the military was.” But it shouldn’t be and it doesn’t have to be. The military is making strides when it comes to changing culture, but we need to continue to send the message that harassment of any kind is acceptable. 

Kaitlynne Hetrick served in the US Navy as Aviation Electronics Technician 3rd Class between the years of 2010 and 2014. She now serves as a Government Relations Associate for IAVA focusing her efforts on women servicemembers and veterans, military sexual trauma, and veteran education benefits. 

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