Retaliation still a major issue for troops who report sexual assault, study finds
Despite significant efforts to make military victims of sexual assault feel safe in reporting attacks, a new survey indicates that retaliation remains a major issue.
“When someone reports a sexual assault, they need to be embraced and helped, not ostracized or punished with retribution,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday while discussing a Rand Corp. report based on a massive anonymous survey of servicemembers, a review of the military justice system and a survey of about 150 sexual assault victims.
He announced several reforms, including new training and an additional study designed in part to prevent retaliation.
Survey results suggested that the number of sexual assaults in the military has gone down, while the percentage of victims who reported attacks has gone up. Therefore, the Pentagon believes “survivors are becoming more confident in the military’s response to sexual assault,” Hagel said, but retaliation must be reduced.
Retaliating against servicemembers who have reported a crime — even just threatening adverse actions — was made illegal under the Uniform Code of Military Justice this year by Congress and the military.
Still, 62 percent of women who said they had reported a sexual assault in the military also said they had experienced some form of retaliation — social, professional or both. That was unchanged from the last survey, in 2012.
At a news briefing Thursday, Rear Adm. Rick Snyder, the Navy’s sexual assault prevention and response officer, said anything which could discourage reporting of sexual assaults or recovery of victims “is really counterproductive to, frankly, everything we’re trying to do here.”
Air Force Maj. Gen. Gina Grosso seemed to downplay concerns of retaliation, saying it seems more like a “peer to peer” problem or issue with how friends and co-workers treat victims than what people might envision: getting fired or moved to a bad job.
“We do know that some victims feel ostracized,” said Grosso, director of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention and response efforts. “And some of it may be because the airmen feel like they have to choose sides in a unit, which of course we wouldn’t want to happen. But I think actually some of it is also people thinking, ‘I want to help you, but I don’t know how to approach you.’ ”
Servicemembers reported that they perceived the climate of their commands to be favorable for sexual assault prevention and response. Still, women rated their command climates slightly lower than men, and junior enlisted and noncommissioned officers perceived their command climate as slightly less favorable than servicemembers of other ranks.
The vast majority of the victims in sexual assault cases that are reported and investigated are women, junior enlisted troops and noncommissioned officers.
“Commanders receive fairly high marks in their support of victims, [but] these high marks do not extend to all as you move down the chain of command,” said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, director of the DOD’s sexual assault prevention and response office. So while commanders appear to be doing well in their support of victims, “others in the command and supervisory chain may not have the skills and knowledge to do the same.”
In the Marine Corps, commanders are particularly worried about social retaliation, said Col. Scott Jenson, head of the Corps’ sexual assault prevention and response branch. Leaders had already identified and begun to address the issue of retaliation, as well as the impact of cyberbullying and intimidation via social media, before the survey results were released, he said.
Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the advocacy group Service Women’s Action Network, said in an interview with Stars and Stripes that while reporting of sexual assault seems to have increased, the crime is still very much underreported.
That fact, coupled with the high number of victims who said they experienced retaliation, says a lot about safety and command climate, Bhagwati said.
Retaliation is “deeply ingrained in the culture of the military,” she said, and the only way to change that is by reforming the military justice process.
“Clearly, victims don’t feel safe,” Bhagwati said. “This is a straightforward fix that military leaders don’t have the courage to implement.”
The Pentagon in the past year has implemented several major reforms to its justice system and the way it handles sexual assaults, but the proposal SWAN supports — which would remove prosecutorial authority on serious crimes from a victim or accused attacker’s commander — has so far failed to pass the Senate.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., the champion of that bill, said the survey results on retaliation should be a “screaming red flag.”
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said the survey should be a wake-up call.
“The data shows a persistent hostile culture for survivors remains the rule, not the exception,” she said.
Still, at a news conference Thursday — and in the report itself — military leaders and supporters of the reforms that passed in the last year said the increase in reporting of sexual assaults and an estimated decrease in the occurrence of sexual assaults is proof that reforms worked.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., praised the "remarkable change in reporting": 1 in 4 sexual assault victims officially reported the crimes in 2014, compared to 1 in 10 in 2012. But she noted that retaliation numbers are static.
"There is not all good news in this report," she said. "We've got to do more on retaliation."
Hagel told a story about his visit to the offices of the Pentagon’s Safe Helpline, a confidential hotline for military victims of sexual assault. There, he said, a wall is plastered with notes from victims who have gotten help and support from the service.
So while the data shows “indications of real progress,” he said, “We ultimately want a military with no more victims, no more calls, no more Post-it notes, no more needed help and no more efforts to stop [sexual assault], because it will be stopped. We’re not there yet, but we will get there.”
Chris Carroll and Jon Harper contributed to this report.