Inside the Military's Fight Against Sexual Assault


According to the Pentagon’s report on sexual assault, 26,000 service members experienced unwanted sexual conduct in 2012. Not only is this a staggering 36% increase from 2010, it also suggests a mere 13% reporting rate, as only 3,374 cases of sexual assault were reported this past year. 

Military leaders and congressional leaders alike are trying to address the growing problem of sexual assault in the military. While Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) seeks to fundamentally reform the judicial process by taking sexual assault cases out of the chain of command, Senators Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) want more oversight and pressure on commanders to ensure they take sexual assault reports seriously. As these proposals battle their way through Congress, the Department of Defense is working on its own set of solutions. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is expected to announce a directive with six new executive actions to combat sexual assault very soon. But before then, on Wednesday night, a panel featuring various prominent service leaders discussed their own efforts to eradicate the problem. 

Maj. Gen. Thomas C. Seamands, the Army’s director of military personnel management, pointed to the Army’s increase in resources as their key approach. “We are in the process of hiring over 900 victim advocates, sexual assault response coordinators and trainers at brigade and equivalent units,” the general said. The focus is not only on supporting victims but also on prosecuting perpetrators. Increased hiring of sexual assault investigators and lab examiners should improve the Army’s investigative and prosecutorial capabilities.

The Navy has concentrated its efforts on expanding preventative measures. It seeks to assign sexual assault prevention and response officers (lieutenant commander or above) to various forces and deploy professional civilian counselors with carrier strike groups, expeditionary strike groups, and amphibious ready groups. There’s also a community outreach and engagement component, with the purpose of “encouraging our civilian community partners to help us with situational awareness,” says Rear Adm. Sean S. Buck, director of the Navy’s 21st Century Sailor program. Other changes include increasing lighting of certain areas to “reduce vulnerability of sailors while walking on base” and increasing roving barracks patrols to raise leadership visibility.

Acting along the same lines, Air Force Maj. Gen. Margaret H. Woodward noted the effectiveness of several new measures initiated by the Air Force. The Air Force has been able to better engage with airmen’s inputs through its sexual assault prevention and response blog. Its special victims counsel program has substantially increased the number of victims who convert from restricted report status to unrestricted report status, thereby allowing for investigations and prosecutions. 

As for the Marine Corps, the goal is to enhance the judicial process by building well-trained and well-prepared trial teams. The hope is that if victims can see the Corps’ timely, effective legal response, then they might be more willing to report the crimes.

And in the Coast Guard, the newest measures may involve stricter restrictions on alcohol consumption. Rear Adm. Daniel A. Neptun noted in the discussion that “90% of reported sexual assaults in the Coast Guard involved alcohol use by the accused, the victim, or both.” Initiatives that curtail alcohol abuse may also decrease cases of sexual assault.

As this wide range of solutions suggests, the battle against sexual assault in the military is one to be fought on many fronts: prevention, accountability, awareness, prosecution, etc. With different branches of the military exploring different programs and regulations, I hope the most effective solutions will be identified and shared. Those who willingly sacrifice everything to protect us deserve nothing less than the most vigorous efforts from the government to protect them.