The War Within: The Uncomfortable Truth About Sexual Assault and a Pervasive Culture of Harassment in the Military

By Spring 2021 M-VETS Student Advisor Alana Nielson

“I wanted to believe in the Navy’s ability to properly handle cases of sexual assault. However, after having been through the process, it became clear that while step one [reporting the assault] is for the victim, all else is done explicitly for the image of the Navy, and the process caters to the perpetrators.” –Navy Veteran, victim of sexual assault

When most parents are informed that their children are joining the military, their first—and often biggest—fear is that their child will be sent off to war and killed. Most parents don’t think that their children will face the same fears of personal safety from within their own units. Most parents can’t imagine that their children could face more harrowing conditions on their own bases, within the United States and abroad, than they will in combat. But this is the new normal for many servicemembers, veterans, and their families.

This new normal includes 20,500 servicemembers who were sexually assaulted or raped in 2018, a 7% increase from 2016.[1] Sexual harassment complaints have also steadily increased—in 2019, the DoD received 1,021 formal sexual harassment complaints, a 55% increase since 2015.[2] In addition to the 1,021 formal complaints, the DoD received 591 informal harassment complaints and 28 anonymous complaints.[3]

These numbers show that efforts made by the Department of Defense to mitigate instances of sexual assault and sexual harassment are failing to be effective. A 2019 “Call to Action” by the Secretary of Defense, aimed at training leaders to prevent and adequately respond to sexual assault and harassment, has not been proven to be effective. Previous efforts to respond to the crisis have been equally ineffective, as the number of sexual assaults continues to grow, year after year, for the past decade.[4]

While the military touts that reporting rates have increased[5], the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) team, who provided these data, provided no indication that the increase in reporting rates had any effect on the mitigation of sexual assault or harassment incidents during the same time period.

 “The entire process was a year of re-victimization. I was treated as if I were the one in the wrong during questioning. I was pressured against hiring a lawyer. I was told ‘You don’t want what happened to you to be in the media, do you?’ The prosecution, the Navy JAGs, were there to represent the Navy—not pursue justice for what was done to me. My character was under assault the entire time. It battered me down and created its own trauma.” –Navy Veteran, victim of sexual assault

Case disposition

Yet another troubling aspect of the Department of Defense’s handling of sexual assault and sexual harassment complaints is the case disposition. Of the 1,021 formal sexual harassment complaints lodged in 2019, 30% of the cases remained either pending or otherwise unresolved as of the publication of annual reporting.[6] Of the over 7,000 sexual assault reports received in 2019, 5,699 of which were unrestricted, 1,828 cases are still pending investigation.[7]

What is even more troubling about the SAPR-provided data is the outcome of Department of Defense Officer of the Inspector General (DOD OIG) investigations into reports of reprisal arising from sexual harassment and assault claims. Of the 85 reported claims of reprisal in 2018, 72% were dismissed.[8] Only two claims were substantiated in the entire Fiscal Year 2019.[9]

In just the past few days, the Department of Defense released sexual assault reporting data for 2020, and the results are even more devastating. Only 255 of 5,640 unrestricted reports resulted in offenders being sent to court martial. Of those, only 50 were convicted of a sex offense requiring registration as a sex offender.[10]

Effects

The effect of this pervasive culture of sexual impropriety in the military has led to over one million outpatient visits at Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities around the country for military sexual trauma (MST)-related care in 2015 alone.[11] These reported visits cannot begin to scratch the surface of the physical and psychological effects suffered by victims of military sexual trauma. Thousands of veterans have MST-related claims pending with the VA, representing potentially millions of dollars in back benefits to be paid to victims. Victims of MST are more likely to suffer from suicidal thoughts or actions, depression, sexually transmitted infections, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and homelessness than their counterparts who did not experience military sexual trauma.[12] Additionally, victims of MST are more likely than their counterparts to remain in abusive relationships, feel isolated from others, and experience difficulty maintaining professional relationships with employers and other authority figures.[13]

Help and Support

Despite the insufficient and often ineffectual handling of sexual assault and harassment by the Department of Defense, organizations outside the military are mobilized to support service members and veterans suffering from the effects of military sexual trauma. Organizations like Protect Our Defenders, a national organization dedicated to supporting victims of MST, and the Pink Berets, a Women Veterans Alliance organization devoted to addressing MST and PTSD, are available to give the necessary support service members and veterans seek, need, and deserve.

If you have been a victim of military sexual trauma, you can apply for legal services at https://protectourdefenders.neworg.com; contact Stephanie Gattas at stephanie@thepinkberets.org; or call the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) at 1-800-656-4673. If you need immediate assistance, you can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1 for veterans) or text at 838255.

[Please note: during the drafting of this blog post, the United States Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response department issued its FY2020 reports. Not all figures in this post reflect the most recently available data. Please visit https://www.sapr.mil/?q=reports for information on FY19 and beyond sexual assault and harassment data and information.]

[1] Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2019 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, Appendix B: Statistical Data on Sexual Assault, Figure 3.

[2] Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2019 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, Appendix F: Sexual Harassment Assessment, Figure 1.

[3] Id. at 4.

[4] Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2019 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, Appendix B: Statistical Data on Sexual Assault, Figure 1.

[5] Reports of sexual assault increased from 3,327 in 2010 to 7,825 in 2019, a 135% increase. Id.

[6] Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2019 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, Appendix F: Sexual Harassment Assessment, Figure 2.

[7] Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2019 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, Appendix B: Statistical Data on Sexual Assault, Figure 6.

[8] Id. at Table 19.

[9] Id.

[10] Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2020 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, Appendix B: Statistical Data on Sexual Assault, Figure 12.

[11] Department of Veterans Affairs, Patient Care Services, Mental Health Services, MST Support Team, FY 2015 Summary of MST-Related Outpatient Care (2016).

[12] Women Veterans and Homelessness: Homelessness Evidence & Research Roundtable Series, VA National Center On Homelessness Among Veterans (July 2016), https://www.va.gov/HOMELESS/nchav/resources/docs/veteran-populations/women/Women-Veterans-and-Homelessness-July-2016.pdf.

[13] Military Sexual Trauma, VA Mental Health (Nov. 1, 2020), https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/docs/mst_general_factsheet.pdf.