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.

Cliff Owen/AP/File
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.

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.

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.”

While the assault findings are similar to those in the rest of the US population, it is important for the military to explore the extent of its own problem, says David Lisak, a clinical psychologist who specializes in sexual assault at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and consulted on the Gallup poll.

“It certainly puts the Air Force in an uncomfortable position, because now they are going to very publicly say, 'Here’s the scope of our problem,' and frankly, that takes guts,” he says.

“There’s no longer a way of saying, ‘Maybe it’s a big problem out there, but I don’t think it’s as big a problem in the Air Force,’ ” Dr. Lisak adds. “It’s sort of a last bastion of denial. The next question is, so what are you going to do about it?”

The survey was designed to help the Air Force evaluate its prevention programs to find out “how much progress we’re making or not making,” says Bradley.

Less than 1 in 5 victims report crimes

Plenty of barriers remain to confronting sexual assault, the survey makes clear. For one, Gallup recommended to the Air Force that it begin to take a closer look at why only a small percentage of victims in the Air Force report the crimes, including less than 1 in 5 women and less than 1 in 15 men.

Though these numbers are similar to the findings of other national studies, according to sex-crime specialists, some of the reasons why airmen may be reluctant to report the crime are unique to the military. While the majority of those who endured unwanted sexual contact said they did not think it was serious enough to report, another trend emerged as well. Nearly 60 percent of women who were raped said they did not want their superiors to know and an even greater number, 63 percent, said they “did not want their fellow airmen to know.” Nearly half said that they "did not want to cause trouble in their unit.”

Such barriers to reporting in the military can be “a little harder” to overcome, says Bradley, particularly when the findings are at odds with the way the force is supposed to function, she adds: “You come into the Air Force as a family – you take care of one another.”

What the Air Force can do

For this reason, the Air Force is concentrating its efforts on a large-scale bystander training program. The findings suggest that many people who are assaulted do tell a friend or fellow airmen, whether they officially report the crime or not. What’s more, says Bradley, “We need to go back and look at training – changing attitudes and behaviors.”

The Air Force has full-time, trained sexual assault response coordinators, or SARCs, at every base, as well as volunteer victim advocates, she adds.

The Air Force is also focusing on better training for military lawyers, who in many cases have little experience compared to the specialized civilian sexual-assault defense lawyers that many alleged perpetrators hire, says Lisak, who helps to train military lawyers.

“All of us who work with the military in this respect, we see very, very young [military] lawyers taking on these cases, and frankly it always seems to me very unfair that very young, relatively inexperienced lawyers are having to go into courtrooms and prosecute cases that are very, very complicated and require a lot of specialized knowledge,” he says.

The Air Force will address all these considerations in the months to come, says Bradley. Once the secretary of the Air Force receives the recommendations of the task force, she adds, “We’re going to have a lot of priorities.”

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