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Why Pentagon's progress against sexual assault is so slow

The military legal system is seen as often punishing victims of sexual assault instead of perpetrators. Pentagon efforts to make headway depend largely on improving prosecutions.

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According to one survey, one quarter said they did not report the crime because they "did not trust the reporting process."

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has acknowledged the systemic problems. "The most important thing we can do is prosecute the offenders," he said. "If we can do that, then we can begin to deal with this issue."

Respondents to the 2011 Air Force survey agreed. "Air Force personnel are trained ad nauseam on sexual assault, prevention, and response," read one response. "The perpetrators of sexual assault, however, will continue their behavior unless they fear significant consequences."

Noted another, "Harsh consequences for offenders is the best way to act as a preventative measure."

Part of that includes increasing the penalties for sexual assault, which are beginning to inch up. The number of courts-martial for sexual assault cases has also increased, from 410 in 2009 to 489 in 2011.

A witch hunt?

Yet some within the military fear the pressure to increase prosecutions of sexual assault could result in a witch hunt mentality.

"What is the 'right' prosecution rate? 20 percent? 40 percent?" says James Russell III, associate director of the Air Force's Military Justice Division.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert also worried about pressure from Congress that would "take the reconciliation – litigation if you will – necessary for sexual assault out of our hands."

But he acknowledged that the low prosecution rates were the result of "some 'not the best' investigations.' "

To that end, in April Mr. Panetta announced a new special victims unit that will help better train military lawyers.

"We hope that it will help the process of prosecuting be stronger," says a congressional staffer. "These are places where the Pentagon prosecution hasn't been willing to go in the past."

Particularly problematic in both investigations and prosecutions has been the military's tendency to emphasize the behavior of the victim, rather than the behavior of the perpetrator, notes Russell Strand, chief of the family advocacy law enforcement training division at the US military police school at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. "We don't look at a burglary victim or robbery and say, 'Well, they gave away money before,' or 'They went to the ATM machine all dressed up.' "

Former investigator Haider found the same. "There were always people asking what [the victim] was doing there, whether she had a boyfriend or not" – scrutiny, she says, not given to the alleged perpetrators.

As prosecutors have begun to take the emphasis off the victims, they have found that many of the sexual assaults in the US military are perpetrated by experienced predators who may engage in as many as 300 sexual assaults during their lifetime, Mr. Strand says.

The US military is an ideal place for sexual predators to prey on victims, with a strict hierarchy that makes it what some have described as a "target rich" environment.

"Most sex offenders aren't the obnoxious people slapping people's behinds and making sexist comments," Strand adds. Instead, they often systematically "groom" their victims, gaining their confidence. They encourage them to take part in activities that might get them in trouble as well if commanders learned of them – such as underage drinking.

Well-meaning victim advocates would often advise the victim against reporting the crime to avoid being prosecuted for such offenses.

Often, it was a valid concern, says Haider. Though many investigators ignored alcohol violations in order to encourage the victims to discuss the crime or witnesses to come forward, others do not. "If the victim had any level of regulatory violation at the time the rape occurred, that's what they're focusing on," Haider says.

The perpetrators are aware of this.

"We know that a lot of the people who perpetrate sexual assaults have done it before," says retired Lt. Col. Nate Galbreath, former deputy director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office and now an adviser to the organization. "These people are very practiced at what they do, and they do it well."

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