Huge spike in reported military sexual assaults

Friday - 5/2/2014, 4:56am EDT

Jared Serbu reports.

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Reported cases of sexual assaults in the military spiked an unprecedented 50 percent between fiscal 2012 and 2013, Defense officials said Thursday.

Victim reporting of sexual assault in the military services has been on a slow and steady rise over the past several years, and compared to prior year-over-year changes, the 2013 increase was enormous. On average, between 2006 and 2012, sexual assault reports increased by 5 percent annually.

Last year, 5,061 service members and civilians came forward to report they were victims of some form of unwanted sexual contact in the military, including 3,768 who made "unrestricted" reports, meaning they were willing to cooperate in an investigation of the perpetrators.

Defense officials see the statistics not as evidence that more of the crimes are actually happening in military ranks, but that the emphasis they've placed on encouraging victims to come forward is beginning to work.

"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," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters Thursday. "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."

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks during a news conferene about the Defense Department's sexual assault prevention and response program.
(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

In conjunction with the release of the annual report, DoD also rolled out a new sexual assault prevention strategy and says it will update that document every two years.

Hagel said he'll issue six new directives to the department, with topics ranging from improving military command culture with regard to sexual assault to examining alcohol policies.

Increased reporting, more prosecutions

It's difficult to estimate how many sexual assaults actually happened in the military during 2013, because DoD's anonymous surveys on the topic happen once every two years. The last was in 2012, and the next is scheduled for this year.

Officials say based on past results, the prevalence rate has been consistent since 2006. Between 4 and 7 percent of uniformed women are victims during any given year, as are between 1 and 2 percent of men.

The Pentagon says increased reporting also brought increased prosecutions.

While many of the investigations from 2013 still are underway, the military services so far have pursued courts-martial or other punishment against 2,149 service members for sexual assault crimes that happened last year, compared to 1,714 the year before. Overall, in cases where the military had jurisdiction over the crime, it took disciplinary action against 73 percent of the service members involved, also a record high.

The military services also have increased their use of courts-martial, as opposed to issuing non-judicial punishments or simply discharging alleged offenders from the service.

"Last year, commanders had sufficient evidence to prefer court martial charges on 71 percent of accused service members. That has not always been the case. The system of military justice that we have in place today is significantly different from the one that existed as recently as two years ago," said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, the director of DoD's sexual assault prevention and response office. "This data also demonstrates that more and more victims are getting an opportunity to be heard in the military justice system. We have taken our assistance to victims to a new level with the special victims' counsel program. This confidential support helps keep victims participating in the military justice system for as long as they desire. The bottom line is that commanders are taking allegations of sexual assault very seriously and holding offenders appropriately accountable."

Some members of Congress and victims advocacy groups don't believe that's the case, and they argue that the military has shown a history of protecting perpetrators of sexual assault, particularly when they hold high ranks.

"The increased reporting is the result of relentless advocacy by military sexual assault survivors and advocacy organizations, heightened scrutiny by the media and increased political pressure," said Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain who now serves as the executive director of the Service Women's Action Network. "Reporting is up, but sexual violence is still deeply entrenched in military culture. We need the structural changes that would be created by Sen. [Kirsten] Gillibrand's Military Justice Improvement Act to ensure that when this intense political pressure begins to fade, justice will be done."

Renewed focus on male victims

The Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) proposal, defeated in its most recent form during a March vote, would establish a new cadre of investigators and prosecutors, within DoD, but outside any individual service member's chain of command, that would be responsible for deciding whether or not a prosecution should be pursued. The change would apply not just to sexual assault, but most other serious criminal offenses as well.

Also, Hagel said he wants a new focus on male victims of sexual assault. While last year's DoD survey showed half of all military sexual assault victims were men, the military has not made much progress in persuading them to come forward. Only 14 percent of the sexual assault reports last year involved male victims.

"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. "Input from male victims will be critical in developing these methods, and results will be closely monitored so we can make them more effective."

Hagel also ordered the military to standardize around tighter criteria to screen its personnel who work in the area of sexual assault, including sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates. After the Army imposed tighter standards last year, it would up disqualifying more than 500 people who held such jobs.

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