Military sexual assault efforts have impact, but hurdles remain

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The latest annual report of the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program shows the effort is having an impact, but that there are still hurdles to overcome, the SAPR program’s director said during a media roundtable May 5.

Army Maj. Gen. Camille M. Nichols was joined by Dr. Nathan Galbreath, senior executive adviser to the DOD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, and Dr. Elizabeth P. Van Winkle of the Defense Manpower Data Center.

In fiscal year 2015, service members made 6,083 reports of sexual assault — the same rate as the previous fiscal year, with four in 1,000 service members reporting sexual assault despite a smaller active-force size, Nichols said.

Also, she added, 21 percent of those making restricted reports in fiscal 2015 chose to convert to unrestricted reports, enabling them to participate in the military justice process. “This is encouraging,” Nichols said, “as we believe it is an indicator of growing confidence in a justice system that is now better configured to hear the voice of the victim.”

The report includes analyses from the Defense Manpower Data Center’s 2015 Focus Group Study of SAPR for Active Duty Members, the 2015 Military Investigation and Justice Experience Survey, the 2015 QuickCompass of SAPR Responders, and the 2015 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Reserve Component Members.

In fiscal 2015, Galbreath said, of the 3,386 subjects for whom SAPRO has final disposition, 2,783 military subjects were considered by military commanders for possible action. “In other words,” he explained, “2,783 (active-duty service members) were within our jurisdiction under military law.”

DOD commanders had evidence and legal authority to take some kind of action on 72 percent of the accused service members, Galbreath said: anything from a court-martial preferral of charges to nonjudicial punishment, an administrative action or a discharge.

For 25 percent of the military subjects, no action was taken because there was insufficient evidence of a crime, because the victim declined to participate in the prosecution, and for other reasons. For 3 percent of the 2,783, charges were determined to be unfounded, he added.

“Of the 72 percent of people that were accused of a sexual assault,” Galbreath said, “the number of people that we could take action against for a sexual assault offense was 1,437, and two-thirds of those had a court-martial charge preferral.”

 Galbreath said that of those who went to trial, 254 were convicted of different kinds of offenses — 161 were convicted of penetrating offenses, 93 were convicted of sexual contact offenses, and another 158 of some lesser nonsexual offenses, including fraternization, adultery, making a false official statement and others.

Nichols said the total numbers of reports versus convictions are not a complete picture of what happened and the outcome, because not all cases reported in one year are completed in the same year.

“It’s a snapshot of how many sexual assaults we know have been reported … and then what we try to do is use the tools we have and updates provided by the military justice processes to just give facts that year. So it’s a fact-based rolling picture,” she said.


Five key efforts

The report highlights five key SAPR program efforts, including encouraging greater sexual assault reporting, advancing sexual assault prevention, improving the response to male sexual assault victims, combating retaliation associated with sexual assault, and tracking the accountability of sexual assault cases.

Nearly 20 percent of reports in 2015 were from military men, and a similar number of reports were submitted by men in 2014, Nichols said.

“Overall, the percentage of reports from men these past two years is up considerably from the early days of the SAPR program,” she added. “Still, men remain less likely to report the crime than women. Encouraging their involvement in prevention and reporting efforts remains a high focus area for us.”

Nichols said many male sexual assault survivors she’s spoken to initially don’t believe they were sexually assaulted, but that rather were physically manhandled as part of a hazing or rite-of-passage ritual.

“Only later on, after hearing and seeing definitions, do they understand that they actually were sexually assaulted,” the general said. The SAPR program is making special efforts to reach these men, she said, adding that SAPRO is reviewing campaign plans from the services to improve outreach.

The program now has a male framework plan of action that is being staffed by the services, the Safe Helpline now has materials specifically for men, and SAPRO trains call takers and caregivers to help male callers, she noted.

“We have a male chat room now where male victims are mentoring new male victims,” Nichols added, noting that the Marine Corps has a good outreach program to reach and talk to those most at risk: 19-to-21-year-old men.

Galbreath said SAPRO estimates that about 40 percent of female victims report sexual assault, and only about 10 percent of men report the crime.

“I think there are huge concerns that men have. … The first two questions they ask me (are) ‘Am I weak?’ and ‘What does this mean for my sexual orientation?’ ” the clinical psychologist said.

“We found last year in our active duty forcewide survey that men experience sexual assault differently than do women. … We think that ultimately we’re going to need to talk to men differently about what sexual assault is and to get them to come forward,” he said.

Nichols said that SAPRO is working more closely with the Veterans Affairs Department, which has military sexual trauma teams that have been set up so that any victim — but certainly a man, especially at remote and small bases — is able to go get support from VA, even when they’re on active duty.


New information

Nichols said new information in this year’s report includes results of the 2015 Military Investigation and Justice Experience Survey, which offers survivor feedback about participating in the military justice process.

Most survey respondents said they were highly satisfied with the support they received, and 77 percent said they would recommend that other survivors come forward to report sexual assault, she added.

Also, for the first time, the report includes provisional data about sexual assaults that occur in the context of domestic abuse, Nichols told reporters. “These reports of sexual assault between spouses and intimate partners captured by our family advocacy program fill in a small, but important, gap in our reporting picture,” she added.

“Eliminating sexual assault remains a top priority for the department,” the general said. “We must continue to foster a climate where dignity and respect, where servicemen and women feel empowered to take action, where they feel safe reporting a crime, and where allegations of inappropriate behavior are treated with the utmost seriousness. The future of our profession of arms depends on our ability to get this right.”

Strengthening support

Also on May 5, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters during a briefing that Defense Secretary Ash Carter last week released the department’s retaliation strategy, which provides a framework for strengthening support for those who experience retaliation in connection with reporting sexual assault or harassment, and for clarifying the retaliation response process.

“The report shows the value of persistent intensive efforts to combat a problem that senior leadership from the secretary on down is fully engaged in attacking,” he said.

“It is a difficult challenge for the military and other institutions in this country, but it’s one (that) under the secretary’s leadership we’re determined to take on,” Cook added, noting that other institutions — from higher education and other federal agencies, even the United Nations — have looked to the Defense Department’s programs as potential models for their own efforts.

DOD community members who have been affected by sexual assault can access 24/7, confidential and anonymous support online through the DOD Safe Helpline or by phone at 877-995-5247.

The Hill AFB Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) serves as the single point of contact for integrating and coordinating sexual assault victim (survivor) care 24/7, 365 days a year. The SARC office is also responsible for providing sexual assault prevention training throughout the installation. Help is just a phone call away. If you have been sexually assaulted, call the Hill AFB Sexual Assault 24/7 Response Line at 801-777-1985/1964.