Despite increased reporting of sexual assaults, DoD still struggles to tackle issue

Tuesday - 5/20/2014, 9:29am EDT

Paula Coughlin, board member, Protect Our Defenders

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Col. Max Maxwell, strategic initiatives officer, Army Judge Advocate General's Corps

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Twenty-three years ago, Paula Coughlin, now a board member of Protect Our Defenders, was a Navy officer and one of the victims and whistleblowers of the Tailhook scandal.

In an interview for Federal News Radio's special report, Trust Redefined: Reconnecting Government and Its Employees, Coughlin said she believes the military has done very little in the 23 years since Tailhook to prevent sexual assaults in the military from occurring.

"By prevention, I mean actually prosecuting those people who are the perpetrators of these crimes," she told Federal Drive hosts Tom Temin and Emily Kopp. "When the crimes continue to become exponentially prevalent among our ranks and military members start to connect that what happened to them happened to somebody else happened to somebody else, and the numbers become more and more outrageous, I think it bears out that there really is no progress in fighting this epidemic and there's no reason why any military member should feel like they could trust their command to take care of this issue."

Although Tailhook was a huge scandal and some military officials did lose their jobs, Coughlin says she did not see any real changes come out of it.

"Everyone retired with full retirement benefits somewhere along the lines of their career," she said. "I left with nothing. Most sexual assault victims end up leaving the military very broken and with very limited benefits."

That pattern has not changed over the 23 years since Tailhook, Coughlin said, because the military has done very little to actually reform it's approach to sexual assaults.

"The Pentagon counts how many people can finally come forward and file a complaint of sexual assault and the Pentagon writes lots of reports about the environment, the dynamic and the prevalence of crime, but they never really have done any reforms that result in prosecution of those crimes. So, they're going to keep reporting and they're going to keep the status quo because it's easier for them and I also believe that there's an underpinning, a foundational flaw in the way the military views sexual assault."

Reports of assaults surge by 50 percent

Coughlin's perspective is shared by many federal employees.

In an exclusive Federal News Radio survey, only about 12 percent of respondents said the military is doing enough to prevent sexual assaults from occurring within the ranks. More than 58 percent said the military is not doing enough.

"Too often, it still feels like a slap on the wrist," one respondent said. "That may be a reason why some victims do not come forward. Also toss in the appearance of the old boy network still in place."

Reports of sexual assaults in the military surged by 50 percent last year, according to a recent Department of Defense report. Secretary Chuck Hagel says these numbers don't reflect an increase in actual cases of sexual assaults, but instead, are the result of DoD's aggressive campaign to encourage victims to come forward and report assaults.

"We have to fight the cultural stigmas that discourage reporting and be clear that sexual assault does not occur because a victim is weak, but rather because an offender disregards our values and the law," Hagel said.

For the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2013, 5,061 service members reported being victims of some form of sexual abuse. That's up from the 3,374 cases reported for fiscal year 2012. Ten percent of the incidents reported in 2013 occurred before the victim entered the military, compared to 4 percent in 2012.

"We believe victims are growing more confident in our system. Because these crimes are underreported, we took steps to increase reporting and that's what we're seeing," Hagel told reporters May 1. "We also had 492 service members — nearly four times more than ever before — come forward to report assaults that had occurred before they joined the military, which meant that we were able to get them the care and support that they need. However, we also believe these crimes are still underreported, so we must keep up the pressure and intensify our efforts to improve victim confidence in our system."

Disagreements persist over how to solve the crisis

The 2014 Defense Authorization Act, passed by Congress late last year and signed into law by President Barack Obama, sought to address the military's sexual assault crisis in a number of ways. The law bars military commanders from overturning jury convictions, requires civilian review boards to review cases where commanders decline to prosecute and limits intrusive questioning of victims.