Pentagon report: Sexual assault in the military up dramatically

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta vowed to reduce sexual assaults within the military with a series of new initiatives. Some say, though, that the initiatives were already mandated by Congress.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
In this file photo, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks at the Pentagon. The Pentagon is preparing a series of new initiatives to try to curb sexual assaults in the military, Panetta said Wednesday, calling the problem a stain on the honor of the armed forces.

There has been a startling and consistent increase in violent sex crimes within the US Army since 2006, according to a new Pentagon report released Thursday.

It comes one day after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta vowed to reduce the number of sexual assaults within the military, calling the numbers “unacceptable.” He announced that the Pentagon was preparing a series of new initiatives in an effort to try to curb the assaults.

While the measures that Mr. Panetta announced this week were widely welcomed, some democratic lawmakers pointed out that many of the newly-announced initiatives were already slated to go into effect with a law passed by Congress late last year. Others warned that the announced steps did not go far enough to combat the fast-growing problem.

The rate of violent sexual crime has increased 64 percent since 2006 according to the US Army report, which noted that “rape, sexual assault, and forcible sodomy were the most frequent violent sex crimes committed in 2011.”

While women comprise 14 percent of the Army ranks, they account for 95 percent of all sex crime victims. 

The study warns that reports of crimes such as forcible sodomy may increase among males in the coming year with the repeal of the law that barred openly gay troops from serving in the military. “Now victims may be more likely to report sexual offenses in the absence of the former Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy,” since troops no longer have to fear being removed from the military if it is discovered that they are gay. 

At the time of the study’s publication, “There were no discernible trends regarding same gender sex crimes.”

Even in the face of increasing rates of rape and aggravated assault in the military, Mr. Panetta emphasized that “we assume this is a very underreported crime,” and that incidents of sexual assault are roughly six times as high as reports of the crime. Last year there were 3,191 reports of sexual assault throughout the US military, but Panetta said that, realistically, the estimate for assaults “actually is closer to 19,000.” 

A recent military investigation found that many victims of sexual assault say they do not report the crimes because they do not believe the perpetrators will be prosecuted. For this reason, Panetta announced a plan to better train military lawyers in prosecuting sex crimes.

The Pentagon’s new initiatives also call for more standardized training for the military’s sexual assault response coordinators (known as SARCs). Panetta emphasized that the military will now keep records of sexual assault on file longer to aid in prosecution, and will also transfer troops who have been sexually assaulted to new units.

While these steps are all positive, they were also mandated by law in the Defense Authorization Bill passed last month, noted Rep. Niki Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts, in a statement on the heels of the Panetta press conference.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D) of California for her part praised a provision that will now allow military spouses to have the same access to confidentiality and treatment within the military system, but warned that the announced policies “are not bold enough.”

Unit commanders “continue to have complete and total discretion over incidents of assault in their unit,” Representative Speier said in a statement. “A commander can choose to investigate a case or sweep it under the rug.” 

Speier has proposed a bill that would establish an independent body to investigate and prosecute military sexual assault cases. “By doing so, it removes the inherent conflict of interest that exists in a command and control environment,” she said.

General Peter Chiarelli, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, who shepherded the Army’s study released Thursday, said that one reason sex crimes figures may have increased “so dramatically” in the past five years is that troops feel more comfortable coming forward to report the crime. 

The Army study indicates that the vast majority (97 percent) of perpetrators “at least casually” know their attacker. Both the victims and perpetrators of sex crimes tend to be among the youngest soldiers. 

For that reason, Chiarelli is examining the possibility of reconfiguring barracks housing, which now more closely resemble civilian apartment to offer troops more privacy, but could contribute to security breaches as well. That said, the figures were “bad news,” Chiarelli acknowledged. “We know we’ve still got a lot of work to do.” 

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