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Exclusive: 1 in 5 Air Force women victim of sexual assault, survey finds

The Air Force is set to release a comprehensive survey about sexual assault, which could become a model as the Pentagon begins to address sexual assault within its ranks more openly.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / March 17, 2011

Veterans Kori Cioca (l.) and Panayiota Bertzikis, pictured here in Washington on Feb. 13, were both assaulted and raped while serving in the US Coast Guard. A new survey on sexual assault in the Air Force is being seen as an important moment in the Pentagon's efforts to confront sexual assault in the services.

Cliff Owen/AP/File

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Washington

In a quiet push to more honestly address sexual crimes within the military, the Air Force will release a survey later this week that finds 1 in 5 women say they have been sexually assaulted since joining the service.

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One of the most comprehensive studies undertaken by the US military to assess sexual assaults within its ranks, it could become a model for how the military as a whole begins to address the problem, defense officials say.

While the data suggest the sexual-assault rate in the Air Force is roughly equal to what it is in the broader civilian population, the survey – obtained exclusively by the Monitor – points to unique challenges presented by the culture of the service. The vast majority of crimes identified in the survey are committed by male airmen on female airmen, and nearly half of rape victims said they did not report the crime because they "did not want to cause trouble in their unit.”

The results, slated to be published on the Air Force website with little fanfare, mark an important step forward for not only the Air Force but the whole military, experts say. For the first time, top officials will be forced to acknowledge and confront the scope of the problem.

“If we’re ever going to get to the point where we know how much progress we’re making or not making, our leadership has to find out the extent of the problem,” says Charlene Bradley, the Air Force’s assistant deputy for force management integration. Air Force leadership was “very concerned” when they reviewed the survey’s findings, she adds. “They were concerned before, but they were very concerned when they saw this.”

The results have prompted the formation of an Air Force task force, which was launched two months ago in the wake of the findings.

About the survey

The military definition of sexual assault includes a range of behaviors, including “sexual contact without consent.” Of the 18.9 percent of female airmen who reported having been assaulted, 58 percent said that they had been raped and 20 percent said they had been sodomized, which the military defines as nonconsensual oral or anal sex.

Two percent of men surveyed reported having been sexually assaulted since joining the military.

The Pentagon has long wrestled with sexual assault in its ranks and at the military academies. Yet it has had no clear picture of the pervasiveness of the crime. Defense officials routinely release figures showing the annual rate of official sexual assault reports. When those figures go up – as they did between 2009 and 2010 when there was a 10 percent spike in reports, for example – officials are often quick to respond that those figures “do not necessarily” represent an increase in incidents. It may simply mean, for example, that victims feel more comfortable reporting them.

The Air Force survey, in which 18,834 male and female airmen were interviewed between July and August 2010, had a response rate of nearly 19 percent and is expected to serve as a new baseline for tracking the crime. The survey, conducted by Gallup, will likely be repeated every 18 to 24 months, says Ms. Bradley.

Officials acknowledge that they had some reservations about embarking on the survey, largely because of what they might discover. “You want to know what’s wrong,” Bradley says. “But it’s hard to know what’s wrong.”

'Blue on blue' crimes

Along with the troubling knowledge that sexual assault is pervasive in the ranks, defense officials learned that in the vast majority of the assaults against women – more than 80 percent – the perpetrators are fellow US servicemembers. “The majority are blue-on-blue – airmen-on-airmen – for women,” Bradley says. “Of course we’re not happy about it.”

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