If troops aren’t safe in our military, they can’t defend America against our enemies. The scourge of military sexual assault is a national embarrassment and must be eliminated. While military sexual assault is often framed as a women’s issue, it impacts both men and women. And while the percentage (4.3 percent in FY 2014) of active duty women estimated to experience unwanted sexual contact is higher than the percentage of men (0.9 percent in FY 2014), in raw numbers more active duty men are estimated to have experienced unwanted sexual contact than women.
The FY 2012 annual report from the DoD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPR) was a wake-up call to the nation, revealing an estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact in the military. Both DoD and Congress responded. Congress passed significant legislative reforms to protect survivors from retaliation, track and preserve evidence of sexual assault, prevent sexual assault, and begin reforming the military judicial system to better prosecute crimes of sexual assault. DoD continues to assess sexual assault in the military through annual updates and address the findings in these reports.
In the FY 2014 update, DoD reported some improvements, including an increase in the number of reports filed, possibly indicating less stigma associated with reporting an assault, and an overall decrease in the number of estimated accounts of unwanted sexual contact (estimated at 18,900). However, there are still significant problems. The report highlighted no significant change in the high number of retaliations for reporting. The report also revealed that while the number of women experiencing unwanted sexual contact decreased, the number of men didn’t significantly change. This highlights the need for additional action to create the circumstances where all survivors can come forward to report cases of sexual assault.
Survivors may not choose to formally report a sexual assault for fear of retaliation, whether professional or social. Six percent of respondents from IAVA’s most recent member survey are survivors of military sexual assault. Only one in three reported the crime. Of those 70 percent experienced retaliation. More importantly, nearly half of survivors said they would have been more likely to report the crime if a trained military prosecutor had the authority to move forward with their case, rather than the commander.
Continued efforts are needed to help survivors of sexual assault come forward so they can seek the care they need, bring the perpetrator to justice, and prevent future assaults by that perpetrator. This will require holding military leaders throughout the chain of command accountable for fostering an environment where retaliation against those reporting is unacceptable.
Congress must improve the military justice system by placing the disposition authority for all serious crimes in the hands of experienced and impartial military prosecutors, instead of the chain of command. While the chain of command would remain involved, the ultimate decision would rest with the prosecutor, ensuring that decisions of whether to prosecute are made on the facts of the case alone, giving both the survivor and the accused justice.
– Ensure full funding for the SAPR by including it in the DoD Program Objective Memorandum budgeting process to ensure that a separate line of funding is allocated to the services.
– Require that SAPRO officers have extensive training to support the physical and emotional needs of survivors of sexual assault and ensure programs are in place to support self-care and protect against fatigue and burnout of these officers.
– Provide a plan to prevent an increase in military sexual assault in newly integrated Military Occupation Specialties following the military’s decision to allow women to serve in combat arms units.
– Fully implement the DoD Retaliation Prevention and Response Strategy while tracking metrics to determine whether implementation leads to desired outcomes.