A Department of Defense report released on May 2, 2019, paints a troubling picture of sexual violence in the US military, with an almost 38 percent rise between 2016 and 2018, according to a Pentagon survey reviewed by INSIDER.
The report, which surveyed men and women in the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force, reported that around 20,500 service members experienced sexual assault in the past year — a significant leap from around 14,900 members in 2016, when a similar survey was conducted.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan called the prevalence of sexual assault in the military “unacceptable” in a memorandum sent across the Department of Defense, and reviewed by INSIDER.
“To put it bluntly, we are not performing to the standards and expectations we have for ourselves or for each other,” Shanahan wrote. “We must improve our culture to treat each other with dignity and respect and hold ourselves, and each other, more accountable.”
U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan.
The Pentagon has grappled with preventing sexual assault in the ranks for decades, and the latest survey shows their policies have failed to stem the problem as more troops report sexual abuse, nearly 90 percent of which was reportedly perpetrated by another member of the military.
Women in the military, and particularly young women between the ages of 17 to 24, are most at risk of experiencing sexual assault, the report found. Sexual assault rates for women were highest in the Marines, followed by the Navy, Army, and Air Force. The rates among men remained similar to the 2016 report.
“The results are disturbing and a clear indicator the Marine Corps must reexamine its sexual assault prevention efforts,” the Marine Corps said in a statement in response to the findings.
The survey also found increases in sexual harassment and gender discrimination compared to 2016, behavior that could ultimately lead to sexual assault.
The memo described a list of steps that the Department of Defense plans to implement in response to sexual assault, such as launching a Catch a Serial Offender (CATCH) program so members can confidentially report offenders, bolstering recruitment efforts, and better preparing enlisted leaders and first-line supervisors to properly respond to sexual misconduct reports.
The Pentagon also established a sexual assault accountability task force last month, at the urging of Arizona Sen. Martha Mc Sally, the GOP lawmaker and 26-year military veteran who revealed in March that she had been raped in the Air Force by a superior officer.
Martha McSally with an A-10 Thunderbolt II.
“As a result of this year’s report, the Department is reevaluating existing processes used to address sexual assault and taking a holistic approach to eliminate sexual assault, which include taking preventative measures, providing additional support and care for victims, and ensuring a robust and comprehensive military justice process,” Department of Defense spokesperson Jessica Maxwell told INSIDER.
Lack of confidence
Thursday’s report hints at a culture in which members may be hesitant to come forward about their assaults, especially as the majority of alleged perpetrators are also in uniform.
In total, 89 percent of alleged offenders were service members, the report found, and 62 percent of assailants had been friends or acquaintances with the victim. Alcohol was involved in 62 percent of sexual assault situations.
For service members who did come forward to report sexual assault, 64 percent described a perceived negative experience or retaliation for speaking out. Maxwell, the spokesperson, told INSIDER that there were 187 allegations of retaliation against victims who reported sexual assault in the past year.
“No one in the Department of Defense should have to fear retaliatory behavior associated with a sexual assault report,” she said, adding that measures are being taken by the department to better respond to retaliation.
While sexual assaults in the military had been on the decline since 2006, when more than 34,000 members had reported misconduct, a 35 percent increase in assaults between 2010 and 2012 led military leaders in 2013 to declare “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse in the ranks. While the percentage of sexual assaults did decline in 2016, that trend reversed course in 2018.
“Collectively, we must do everything we can to eliminate sexual harassment and assault in the military,” Shanahan wrote in his memo. “Sexual assault is illegal and immoral, is inconsistent with the military’s mission, and will not be tolerated.”
This article originally appeared on Insider. Follow @thisisinsider on Twitter.