Fifteen Years of Department of Defense Efforts to Prevent and Respond to Sexual Assault within the Military: The Accomplishments and Shortcomings

By Summer 2020 M-VETS Student-Advisor Ashley Close

During the last couple of decades, numerous news stories shed light on the prevalence of sexual assault within the military. Following these scandals, in February of 2004, the former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld directed Dr. David Chu, the former Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, to review the Department of Defense (DoD) process for the treatment and care of victims of sexual assault in the military.[1] DoD then created a Care for Victims of Sexual Assault task force focused on making recommendations for preventing sexual assault within the military.[2] In January 2005, the taskforce presented recommendations for a comprehensive policy for preventing sexual assault within the military to Congress.[3] Based on these recommendations including the idea for a central point of accountability for sexual assault policy within the military, in October 2005, the taskforce transitioned to a permanent office, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO).[4] SAPRO creates sexual assault prevention and response policy and provides oversight to ensure that each service branch complies with these policies.[5] SAPR offices were also created within each service branch.[6]

SAPRO crafted DoD Instruction 6495.02 which outlines Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program Procedures.[7] These program procedures focus on five areas of effort: 1) prevention; 2) victim assistance and advocacy; 3) investigation; 4) accountability; and 5) assessment.[8] These efforts are executed through training and certifying SAPR coordinators at each service branch on sexual assault prevention and response procedures, crafting prevention-specific policies, providing resources and data collection systems, planning, and continuous evaluation.[9] SAPRO also created SAPR connect, an online platform for sexual assault prevention personnel to collaborate.[10] SAPR coordinators support service members by being available to active duty service members including through a 24/7 hotline number and offering numerous options for reporting sexual harassment or assault allegations. [11]

In April 2016, DoD published a new “Retaliation Prevention and Response Strategy” based on military data showing a high percentage of service member sexual assault victims admitted to underreporting sexual assault due to perceived fears about retaliation.[12] The strategy was employed to prevent any retaliation for reporting sexual assault.[13] Since then, according to the DoD statistical data on sexual assault from fiscal year 2019, the rate of reporting in each service branch has only increased.[14] Similarly, a report from fiscal year 2018 noted 1 out of 3 came forward to report sexual assault as compared to 2006 where 1 out of 14 reported sexual assault.[15] This report also indicated 76% were satisfied with support from Victim Advocate and “93% of respondents who noticed inappropriate or risky behavior intervened.”[16]

However, there is still plenty of room for improvement within the military. Despite fifteen years of sexual assault prevention efforts, sexual assault remains a problem within the military. The story of the April 2020 killing of Fort Hood Specialist Vanessa Guillen is a grave reminder of this shortcoming within the military. Guillen disappeared on April 22, 2020 from Fort Hood and her dismembered remains were discovered on June 30, 2020.[17] Prior to her disappearance, Guillen told her family she was being sexually harassed by a fellow solider at Fort Hood, but she was hesitant to report it to her superiors due to fears of retaliation.[18] Guillen’s family believes this sexual harassment was connected to her death. The story received so much media attention and public outcry that the United States Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel held a hearing in July 2020 to examine Guillen’s killing.[19]

Following the discovery of Guillen’s remains the New York Times reported a rise in activism surrounding sexual assault in the military noting: “activists have expressed outrage at the lack of answers and action from the military when Specialist Guillen first disappeared and have called for changes in how the military handles reports of sexual harassment and assault and ramping up the military’s own #MeToo moment.”[20]

Despite efforts made by the military over the last fifteen years to prevent and respond to the sexual assault and harassment within it ranks, if the New York Times is correct, the military may be facing its own #MeToo movement. It may be time that SAPRO reviews its sexual harassment and assault prevention and response policies and procedures to address these shortcomings. Even though the military in 2016 implemented a strategy to prevent retaliation for reporting sexual harassment or assault, Guillen’s story shows the strategy has not fully reached its goals. The Secretary of the Army did order an independent review of Fort Hood’s command culture indicating signs that Guillen’s story may leave a lasting impact on the military’s response and prevention of sexual assault.[21]

[1] Rumsfled, Donald H., Memorandum on Department of Defense Care for Victims of Sexual Assault, Office of Secretary of Defense (05 February 2004).

[2] Chu, David S. C., Memorandum on Department of Defense Care for Victims of Sexual Assault, Office of Under Secretary of Defense (10 February 2004).

[3] United States Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Mission & History, https://www.sapr.mil/mission-history (last visited on Aug. 20, 2020).

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] U.S. Department of Defense, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Program Procedures, Instruction 6495 (24 May 2017).

[8] United States Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response DOD SAPR Strategic Plan, https://www.sapr.mil/dod-sapr-strategic-plan (last visited on Aug. 20, 2020).

[9] United States Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Prevention, https://www.sapr.mil/prevention (last visited on Aug. 20, 2020).

[10] Id.

[11] DoD Safe Helpline, https://safehelpline.org/telephone (last visited on Aug. 20, 2020).

[12] U.S. Department of Defense, DoD Retaliation Prevention and Response Strategy, April 2016.

[13] Id.

[14] Madeline Herzong, 15 Years of Support for Service Members, SAPR News, 12 June 2020, https://www.resilience.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/2220709/sapr-15-years-of-support-for-service-members/.

[15] Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in Military Fiscal Year 2018, https://www.sapr.mil/sites/default/files/FY17_AR_Report_Statistical_Highlights_Info_Graphic_FINAL.jpg.

[16] Id.

[17] Kyle Rempfer, Missing Fort Hood was killed in armory, then hacked to pieces, family’s attorney says, ARMY TIMES (July 2, 2020), https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2020/07/02/missing-fort-hood-soldier-was-killed-in-armory-then-hacked-to-pieces-familys-attorney-says/.

[18] Id.

[19] The Military’s #MeToo Moment: An Examination of Sexual Harassment and Perceived Retaliation in the Department of Defense and at Fort Hood Before the Subcommittee on Military Personnel Hearing: 116th Cong. (2020).

[20] Johnny Diaz, Maria Cramer, and Christina Morales, What We Know About the Death of Vanessa Guillen, (Aug. 14, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/article/vanessa-guillen-fort-hood.html.

[21] Id.