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Sexual Assault In The US Military: Renewed Efforts, Mixed Results

Patricia Murphy

There were 116 reports of sexual assault at Washington state military installations during 2010. Experts and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta agree that the actual rate of sexual assault in the military is likely six times higher.

That would put the national figure for military sexual assaults in 2010 close to 19,000. Since being appointed as Secretary of Defense in late 2011, Panetta has taken the issue head on. In January, he took the unusual step of publicly addressing victims.

Panetta: "I deeply regret that such crimes occur in the US military. And I will do all I can to prevent these sexual assaults from occurring in the Department of Defense."

But as KUOW's Patricia Murphy reports, reducing sexual assault in the military is a formidable task. Many say it requires a cultural sea change for an institution long dominated by hyper–masculine beliefs and victim stigma.


Air Force Major General Mary Kay Hertog is the director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, also known as SAPRO.

Before Hertog came on board, a civilian was in charge. Rank matters in the military. The appointment of a general officer with a background in security is seen as a major step forward for the Department of Defense.

Hertog says there is zero tolerance for sexual assault in the military.

Hertog: "We're combating an enemy — that's how I look at it — every single day, and everybody has to do this. You know, the Secretary of Defense is very clear: I expect you to be leaders. This is your responsibility and I'm going to hold you accountable to make sure you're holding people accountable. So that message has to come across loud and clear every day."

Hertog has to rely on commanders to deliver that message. Brenda Farrell of the Government Accountability Office agrees.

Farrell: "The leadership do set the tone that sexual assault will not be tolerated; here's the rules and here's what we're going to do about it. Unfortunately, sometimes the policy isn't always implemented and the practice is much different than the intent."

Congress directed the nonpartisan watchdog office to investigate how the military handles sexual assault cases. Farrell's report was released in June.

Among other things, it examined how well commanders were doing in providing support and awareness training to reduce sexual violence. Some took it seriously. Others were reluctant to take even the most basic steps.

Farrell: "There was difficulty getting command support even with little things like putting up posters in barracks that advertise, here's how you report a sexual assault incident, or here's who you can go to for help if you're aware of someone who's had a sexual assault problem."

An indifferent command climate around sexual assault can have a lot of consequences. It can send a mixed message about the seriousness of the crime. It can also hinder a victim's confidence to report when something does happen.

Charlie Swift: "Sometimes we have senior enlisted personnel utilizing their position and a young lady feeling like she doesn't have a lot of choices."

Charlie Swift is a military lawyer in Seattle and a former judge advocate general for the Navy.

Swift: "There is the perception that the boss, that the senior commissioned or non–commissioned officer is absolutely believable and will not be doubted. So the command structure can lead to a very coercive environment."

Conversely, some say the uproar around the military's handling of sexual assault has led to overzealous prosecutions in some cases. That's why Major General Hertog says sexual assault prevention training is critical, not only for commanders, but for the hundreds of newly enlisted men and women who enter into the military each week.

Hertog: "When people come in the military, we're not naive enough to believe that they're going to shed their biases or drop their prejudices. But what you have to do is get them used to the standards by which we expect them to behave, as well as execute their duties and responsibilities."

Hertog says SAPRO is working to implement consistent training standards and accountability for leadership, both of which were found to be lacking in the Government Accountability Office's report.

Sexual assault cases can be complicated. A strict code of conduct for service members compounds that complexity.

There are often few witnesses. In remote outposts, there may be limited access to forensic evidence collection kits and victim advocates. Service members may feel trapped. In some cases, it's the victim who fears punishment.

Hertog: "About 40 to 60 percent of our cases involve some kind of collateral misconduct — especially drinking or underage drinking. And that's what makes these cases so tough. It is very murky, but what we tell the commander is, 'Concentrate on the crime, ok?' The crime of sexual assault."

The Department of Defense doesn't keep track of how often victims of sex crimes face disciplinary action. But when things go wrong and someone reports a sexual assault, Swift says it impacts the entire unit: they can't deploy, work schedules are disrupted. Victims can quickly become pariahs.

Swift: "Some of them may be angry at the attacker; some of them may be angry at the victim. But they're gonna be angry. And in the end, if she'd kept her mouth shut, we'd probably all be a lot happier except for her. And that's if they believe her."

Major General Hertog says the Department of Defense has taken recent steps to address the problem of victim stigma. Sexual assault victims can now request for transfer to a new base to keep them from being in close quarters with their alleged attacker.

When a victim is assaulted he or she has two options. The first allows a victim to confidentially disclose the crime and receive medical treatment and counseling. There is no investigation and no charges for the alleged perpetrator. This option has been criticized. Some say it only reinforces stigma and allows perpetrators to continue to commit assaults.

Under new rules, any evidence collected during this process is held for five years in case a victim changes his or her mind and asks for an investigation.

The second option for victims triggers an investigative process. His or her commander is notified. After the investigation, the commanding officer considers the evidence. The commander has complete authority over how a sexual assault is handled.

Swift: "In the military the decision whether to prosecute or not is made by the commanding officer, and the commanding officer is not a lawyer. And in this very gray world, he has to make, or she has to make some very difficult decisions."

A commander has many options. He or she can decide not to prosecute, impose a nonjudicial or administrative punishment.

The most severe is a court–martial where the accused goes on trial. Legislation has been introduced in Congress to take this responsibility away from commanders.

There were 116 reports of sexual assault at Washington military installations in 2010. Nationally in that same year there were more than 3,000 reports. Seventeen percent of those cases went to trial. Only half resulted in convictions.

Tomorrow, we'll hear from two victims of sexual assault: one case was prosecuted, one was handled off the record.

I'm Patricia Murphy, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW