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Guest Editorial: Military still struggles with sexual assaults

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There is no question that at the highest levels of command, the American military is determined to stop the troubling level of sexual assault within the ranks. Nor is there any question that it’s going to be a long, slow process. Simply telling the troops that sexual harassment and assault aren’t acceptable isn’t enough.

That’s exactly the commitment Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commander of Fort Bragg and the 18th Airborne Corps, has made. “Let me say that sexual harassment and sexual assault are abhorrent to me and completely unacceptable to our Army,” Townsend says. “This behavior equates to soldier-on-soldier fratricide that negatively impacts our readiness, and we won’t rest until we completely change our Army’s culture.”

Townsend and other top Army leaders have done a lot more than declare assault unacceptable. They have launched dozens of prevention programs, including a Fort Bragg sexual assault review board that meets monthly, extensive training at every level, adding more trained counselors, making it easier to report sexual assaults and ensuring that victims are treated better and more respectfully. Fort Bragg troops have also participated in several pilot programs, including a $3 million study that will result in a program aimed at the intersection of sexual assault and high-risk alcohol abuse.

And yet, the problem is hard to overcome. There were 156 sexual assaults reported at Fort Bragg last year, although post leaders say some of them were a result of assaults that occurred earlier. The numbers also include verified and unsubstantiated reports and some are also civilian reports against military members.

But despite the fuzziness of those numbers, we’re more concerned about two other troubling aspects of sexual assault within the military. First, most sexual assaults still aren’t being reported. Based on confidential surveys, the Pentagon estimates that only 32 percent of service members who experienced a sexual assault reported it. That’s a sharp improvement in the reporting rate from just four years ago, when it was only 15 percent. Continuing efforts against sexual harassment and violence are beginning to show some small successes, even though there’s a long, long way to go.

And there’s another thing that’s even more worrisome: Of those who did report a sexual assault, 71 percent of women and 64 percent of men said they experienced retaliation. Those numbers mean it’s almost a sure thing that if you’re in the military and you report you were assaulted, you’ll pay for it, whether or not you have the satisfaction of seeing your attacker face consequences for the crime. No wonder the military is having such a struggle to get assault victims to report the crime.

Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain and director of government relations at the Service Women’s Action Network, says those data are “an indication of the continued failure of the military services in their critical task of preventing sexual assault to begin with.” That’s also why Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, which is chaired by North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis — has reintroduced her bill to reform the way the military handles sexual assault cases. Her measure would take away unit commanders’ authority over sexual assault cases and allow military prosecutors to decide which cases go to trial. “Top officials in the military continue to assert that they alone will fix this,” she said in a statement, “but little has changed.”

It’s likely that more aggressive prosecution and freeing prosecutors to determine which cases go to trial would be effective steps in reducing the overall sexual assault rates in the military services, but that won’t solve the even more difficult challenge of transforming an ages-old warrior culture in ways that prevent sexual assaults and harassment. Persistence and real zero -tolerance are the keys.

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