More military sex assault reports -- a positive sign?

A staff member reviews a card given out during a Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month training session conducted at the Center for Personal and Professional Development in Virginia Beach in this April 2013 photo. SUSAN D. HENSON/U.S. NAVY
A staff member reviews a card given out during a Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month training session conducted at the Center for Personal and Professional Development in Virginia Beach in this April 2013 photo. SUSAN D. HENSON/U.S. NAVY

More military sex assault reports -- a positive sign?

by: Hugh Lessig | .
Daily Press | .
published: July 28, 2014

NORFOLK, Va. — Navy Capt. Chuck Marks spent a year in Afghanistan as chief of plans, coordinating the interests of 50 coalition nations, a somewhat reluctant Afghan government and neighboring countries that were, in a word, "interesting."

Now he works in Norfolk, far removed from a ground war. Yet he considers his current job more challenging and complex.

Marks is the sexual assault prevention and response officer at U.S. Fleet Forces Command. He is among those on the front lines of a different struggle: changing a military culture regarding sex crimes.

Reports of military sexual assault are skyrocketing. A Pentagon report released May 1 logged a nearly 50 percent increase across all services in a year. Yet Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the crime is still being underreported.

"We must keep up the pressure and intensify our efforts to improve victim confidence in our system," he said in releasing the report.

Far from being discouraged by the rising numbers, Marks says he is heartened. It shows more service members are coming forward to seek help and find justice, he said.

There will never be a magic moment where the military will declare its culture to be "transformed," but Marks says momentum is building.

"Everyone gets it. Everyone is working on it together," he said. "I have rarely seen the kind of synergy I see today."

Lt. Annie Otten is a Fleet Forces Command victim's advocate. She's been doing this type of job for eight years, implementing programs at different Navy commands. Years ago, it seemed many sailors didn't realize the extent of the problem.

"When I would conduct training, I was still saying, 'We have a problem. It's sexual assault. This is what sexual assault is.' You really had to break it down to the basics," she said. "That started to change, slowly, probably five years ago. Within the last two to three years, it has been a constant drumbeat. We have really ramped it up. I don't know if we fully understood the depth of the problem more than two or three years ago."

The problem is compounded by the complexity of sexual assault cases, said Marks.

"I have looked at every single sexual assault incident that's occurred inside Fleet Forces Command in fiscal years '13 and '14, and many of the cases in fiscal year '12," he said. "There are zero cases that look alike. ... When you talk to our prosecution team in Norfolk, they will tell you that sorting through a murder case is much simpler than a sexual assault case."

He can make some broad generalizations. A very small percentage of cases involve an unknown assailant hiding in the bushes, or higher-ranking officers forcing themselves on junior sailors.

"Most of our victims and alleged offenders are first-term sailors," he said. "And most of our cases involve alcohol. So it's peer to peer."

Often there is a prior relationship.

"What we have seen in many of our cases, there's some sort of relationship between the two that is unprofessional in the workplace. Both participate, then you go out into town, introduce alcohol, and somebody believes they've got the green light and they don't," he said.

Military law and reporting

The Uniform Code of Military Justice breaks down sexual crimes into five categories, three of which can be labeled as penetration crimes and two as contact crimes.

"In most every state, those contact crimes, which make up a little more than half our cases, are not sexual assaults," he said. "Out in town, here in Virginia, they would be misdemeanors. But they're a felony sexual assault under the DoD definition. Those were changed in June 2012."

Victims can file restricted or unrestricted reports. A restricted report does not involve a legal case. The victim comes forward and the case is recorded, but the primary motivation is to seek help. In an unrestricted report, the victims are not only getting help, they're seeking justice.

"We see a big uptick in unrestricted reports," Marks said, "and a big uptick in restricted reports being converted into unrestricted reports. Both of those are giving us confidence that people are coming forward."

Otten cited another reason why service members seem to have more confidence in the system.

"We're getting a lot of reports with latency -- reporting something that happened one or two years ago," she said. "As victim advocates, we are grateful that they're coming forward and getting help, whereas before you didn't see so many latency reports. Others are reporting earlier incidents before they joined the military."

Male victims

Sexual assaults on male service members continue to be under-reported, defense officials say. Hagel said the military is working on ways to encourage male victims to come forward.

At Fleet Forces Command, the Navy is seeing more male victims, but it still lags female reporting.

"The culture associated with males (and sexual assault) is a relatively new thing for the military to deal with out in the open," Marks said. "But I also think that's reflective of society at large."

Addressing this issue in May, Hagel said, "With estimates that men comprise more than half the victims of sexual assault in the military, we have to fight the cultural stigmas that discourage reporting and be clear that sexual assault does not occur because a victim is weak, but rather because an offender disregards our values and the law. Input from male victims will be critical in developing these methods, and results will be closely monitored so we can make them more effective."

What's next?

Military leaders cite several new reforms meant to improve the system going forward.

They will evaluate training for sexual assault prevention and response officers, create an online forum to share information and encourage male victims to come forward. Another is a review of alcohol policies.

Congress has enacted several changes as well, although some say more needs to be done.

The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law in December 2013, strips commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions, installs civilian review of decisions to not prosecute cases, provides victims with their own independent legal counsel and requires dishonorable discharge or dismissal for anyone convicted of sexual assault.

In addition, Virginia Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine pushed through the Military Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act that, among other things, will encourage troops to report unwanted sexual contact without fear of retribution.

Marks said the Navy's overall push toward "wellness" should help as well. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced that initiative in March 2012 when he spoke in Norfolk aboard the USS Bataan.

The Navy's four biggest issues when it comes to readiness are sexual assault, domestic violence, suicide, and alcohol abuse. Once way to combat all those problems is making sure that sailors eat right, take care of themselves physically and maintain a balance between work and home life.

"If you're going to go after all of the destructive behaviors," Marks said, "you've got to put your net around all of that stuff collectively."