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Pentagon discloses a record rate of sexual assaults

Rates rose for women and men compared to 2018 survey

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, left, and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, center, listen as Defense Comptroller Michael J. McCord speaks during a House hearing in May. Austin has made confronting the challenge of sexual crimes in the military a centerpiece of his tenure.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, left, and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, center, listen as Defense Comptroller Michael J. McCord speaks during a House hearing in May. Austin has made confronting the challenge of sexual crimes in the military a centerpiece of his tenure. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images file photo)

Sexual assaults of active-duty U.S. military personnel are at their highest levels in the 15 years the Pentagon has been surveying uniformed servicemembers about these offenses, Defense Department officials said Thursday.

The disturbing update is likely to trigger further calls in Washington for new laws to address the problem.

Based on the results of a new fiscal 2021 survey made public Thursday, the Pentagon estimates 35,875 active-duty personnel, both women and men, were sexually assaulted — meaning, in essence, raped or groped, or an attempt was made to commit one of those crimes.

By contrast, in fiscal 2018, the last time the survey was conducted, the number of reported victims was estimated to be 20,500.

The nearly 36,000 affected servicemembers comprised 19,300 women and 16,600 men, though women, on average, were more likely to be victims. Of all servicemembers, 8.4 percent of women (roughly 1 in 12) and 1.5 percent of men said they had been assaulted or that someone had tried to assault them. In 2018, the comparable percentages were 6.2 percent and 0.7 percent.

Consequently, the increase in the prevalence of assaults among women since the 2018 report is greater than 35 percent, and the rate has more than doubled among men, the figures show.

“These numbers are tragic and extremely disappointing,” said Elizabeth Foster, executive director of the Defense Department’s Office of Force Resiliency, at a Pentagon press briefing Thursday.

Initial reaction from Congress suggests a louder call may be coming for accountability for these crimes, for more rapid implementation of recent changes in prosecution oversight — and, perhaps, for enactment of new responses.

“The data shows a military in a crisis,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who chairs the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, said in a statement Thursday.

“When service members cannot trust their leaders to uphold the values of our military services it means we are failing,” Gillibrand said. “We are betraying the trust of service members and their families and failing the most heroic among us.”

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, said in a statement she will call a hearing on the subject in the coming weeks.

“The watchful eye of Congress is needed to ensure that military leadership is held to account and any additional changes deemed necessary to address this national embarrassment and crisis are made,” said Speier, who is retiring after this session. “If we fail to do so, we risk further erosion of the confidence of our troops and further undermining of DoD’s struggling recruitment and retention efforts.”

A scourge surges

The question on the military’s survey changed slightly in 2021, compared to the one posed in fiscal 2018, and that might account for some of the increase in prevalence numbers, officials said. But they still surmise that a real surge of assaults probably took place.

In the reserves, the prevalence of assaults was not as high as in the active-duty services, but the rate still grew since 2018, officials said.

The fiscal 2021 survey of active-duty military personnel, conducted in the first three months of 2022, contained other alarming findings:

  • Fully 29 percent of active-duty women reported sexual harassment in the workplace. Among those women, 1 in 4 said they had been assaulted.
  • Only 1 in 5 assaults in the active-duty military were reported, down from 1 in 3 in 2018.
  • Trust in military leaders to accomplish three goals — protect victims’ privacy, ensure their safety and treat them with dignity and respect — plummeted. Compared to the 2018 survey, trust levels for each of those categories in the new survey dropped 20 percentage points or more among both women and men.

“On an individual level, it is devastating to conceptualize that these numbers mean that over 35,000 servicemembers’ lives and careers were irrevocably changed by these crimes,” the Pentagon’s Foster said. “These events not only have an impact at an individual level, but they also degrade our readiness and ability for the department to conduct our mission.”

An NDAA focus

Each year for nearly a decade, the National Defense Authorization Act has included provisions aimed at solving the problem. The fiscal 2022 measure was arguably tougher than any of its predecessors on sexual assault. The fiscal 2022 NDAA removed from the military chain of command the responsibility to prosecute sexual and related crimes and instead handed it to special victims units in the services.

That change is being implemented now. Pentagon officials said Thursday they plan to hire more than 2,000 professionals for the new offices and have already started hiring 400 of them.

Speier recommended that, as with sexual assaults and murders, sexual harassment crimes be prosecuted not by flag officers in the chain of command but by the new special victims units.

The Pentagon has long resisted calls on Capitol Hill for changes to its organizations and culture to grapple with the problem of sexual crimes in the military.

But Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has made confronting the challenge a centerpiece of his tenure. He stood up a special panel last year that recommended dozens of changes — and he supported all of them.

The fiscal 2021 survey on sexual crimes was conducted before many of the changes put forth by Austin or required by Congress have taken root.

Still, Pentagon officials were not minimizing the grave results of the survey, even if those officials believe they are making the right moves to address the challenge.

“We have heard loud and clear from our victims that the conditions in the force are unacceptable right now,” Foster said at Thursday’s press briefing. “And that is why we are making unprecedented resource investments to get after this problem.”

Nathan Galbreath, acting director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, told reporters: “We have a lot of work to do.”

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