The Defense Department yesterday released its annual report on sexual assault in the military, which shows an increase in reporting of assaults, but officials stress that more work needs to be done to eliminate the crime from the ranks.
The report for fiscal year 2017 says military services received 6,769 reports of sexual assault involving service members as either victims or subjects of criminal investigation, a 9.7 percent increase over the 6,172 reports made in fiscal 2016.
"Over the last decade, the department has made progress,” Elizabeth P. Van Winkle, the executive director of DoD’s Office of Force Resiliency, said in a Pentagon media briefing today.
Fewer service members experience sexual assault than compared to previous years, and more service members than ever are “making the courageous decision to report their experiences and to receive restorative care," Van Winkle said.
"While the progress we’ve seen provides some comfort, we neither take it for granted nor are we under any illusions that our work is done," she said.
Of the 6,769 reports of sexual assault in fiscal 2017, 5,864 involved service member victims. The remaining 905 reports involved 868 victims who were U.S. civilians or foreign nationals and 37 victims for whom status data were not available, according to the report.
Eliminating Sexual Assault from Ranks
“Preventing sexual assault is our moral duty,” Defense Secretary James N. Mattis wrote in an agencywide memo for Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. “By its nature, sexual assault is one of the most destructive factors in building a mission-focused military.”
Self-discipline, alert noncommissioned officers and attuned chains of command are essential in setting standards to strengthen military readiness to fight well and increase the ability to recruit and retain the best people, he wrote.
“While casualties on the battlefield are understood to be consistent with our military duties, I accept no casualties due to sexual assault within our ranks,” he said. “Military leaders are to be zealous in carrying out in loco parentis responsibilities and ridding our ranks of such illegal, abhorrent behavior.”
The department encourages reporting of sexual assaults so the service member victims can be connected with restorative care and the perpetrators can be held responsible, Navy Rear Adm. Ann M. Burkhardt, the director of the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, told reporters.
"Every sexual assault in the military is a failure to protect the men and women who have entrusted us with their lives,” she said. "We will not rest until we eliminate this crime from our ranks."
Of the 5,864 service member victims for fiscal 2017, about 10 percent made a report for incidents that occurred to them before entering military service, according to the report.
The report says 5,277 service members made a report of sexual assault for an incident that occurred during military service, an increase of 10 percent from the 4,794 reports from service members received in fiscal 2016.
Burkhardt pointed out in fiscal 2018, the department will survey the active duty force to update its estimates of the past-year prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment. The prevalence figures will be compared to the figures released today to get the full picture of sexual assault in the military, she explained.
The department will do more to prevent assaults and protect victims, she said.
“We’ll be redoubling our efforts to advance prevention initiatives that create a military free from sexual assault,” she said. “The department will also further actions to prevent and protect service members from retaliation and encourage greater reporting from male service members."
More Victims Coming Forward
In the 5,277 service member reports, 4,193 were from women, an increase of 13 percent, while 1,084 were from men, no change from fiscal 2016, according to Nathan W. Galbreath, deputy director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
However, the prevalence numbers are needed to put today’s figures in context, he said.
"We’re seeing a bigger slice of the problems -- in other words, more people coming forward to participate in the justice system to get the help that they need and to give us a chance to hold offenders appropriately accountable," he said.
Last year’s survey of active duty members found that the estimated past-year prevalence rate of sexual assault decreased to the lowest levels on record since the department began measuring prevalence rates in 2006, he pointed out.
Reporting of sexual assault also increased in 2016, he said, with increased reporting due to a decade of progress in victim support, military justice and prevention work.
Holding Perpetrators Responsible
In fiscal year 2017, 4,779 subject case dispositions were reported to the department. Those case depositions from DoD investigations included service members, U.S. civilians, foreign nationals and cases where the offender could not be identified.
Twenty-five percent, or 1,212, of the 4,779 case dispositions were outside DoD legal authority or involved service member subjects who were prosecuted by civilian or foreign authorities.
In fiscal 2017, 3,567 cases investigated for sexual assault involved service members whom DoD could consider for possible action. DoD authorities had sufficient evidence to take some kind of disciplinary action in 2,218 of those 3,567 cases.
Out of those 2,218 cases, 1,446 received action on a sexual assault charge, including having court-martial charges preferred; 772 received action on some other form of misconduct, such as nonjudicial punishment, administrative discharge or other adverse administrative action.
(Follow Lisa Ferdinando on Twitter: @FerdinandoDoD)