September 20, 2022

U.S. Military Needs a Stronger Sexual Assault Policy

In June 2006, in order to conform to the mandate of the 2005 National Defense Authorization Act, the Office of the Secretary of Defense issued an instruction to the Pentagon’s Inspector General to develop a policy to oversee sexual assault investigations in the military. In a report issued last month, five years after this official instruction, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the DOD IG “has not performed these responsibilities.”

The GAO reports that the DOD IG “believes it has other, higher priorities.” Yet ensuring that our troops are able to serve in a safe environment must be a primary goal of our military leadership. Therefore, it is the height of irresponsibility for DOD not to have a strong policy to combat sexual assault in the military.

Sexual assault in the military disproportionately affects servicewomen. One in three women who serve in the military is a victim of sexual assault during her service. Sexual assault in the military is not a new problem now, nor was it a new problem in 2006. But as women join the military in greater numbers and take on increasingly central roles in U.S. operations, the issue has become more and more pressing.

In the five years since the Office of the Secretary of Defense ordered that the Pentagon develop a policy on sexual assault investigations, almost 15,000 active-duty servicemembers have reported being the victims of a sexual assault. The Department of Defense estimates that 80% of sexual assaults in the military go unreported, so the true number may be as high as 75,000. The problem has been compounded by the military justice system. In the past five years, only 8% of the reported cases have been prosecuted—meaning only 1.6% of the more likely number of cases that have actually occurred have led to a prosecution.

The Department of Defense has done little to address the problem of sexual assault within the ranks, enhance the safety of the women and men who serve, or bring the perpetrators to justice. In addition to reporting mechanisms and legal services, sexual assault survivors need access to support services and treatment. While DOD created the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) after the passage of the 2005 NDAA, Anuradha Bhagwati, Executive Director of the Servicewomen’s Action Network (SWAN), has criticized the military for understaffing and ignoring this “tiny” department, which, she notes, “is not even headed by a military officer.”

The GAO report also cites a number of more specific problems in the way the Department of Defense deals with the crime of sexual assault. As mandated in the 2005 NDAA, the DOD IG has two major responsibilities on this issue: developing a military-wide policy for investigating sexual assaults and monitoring the investigations undertaken by the services. According to the GAO report, the DOD IG has failed to perform either of these tasks.

Among the problems that result from this inaction at the level of the Secretary of Defense and his staff are the inconsistencies within and among services in the investigations of assaults. The GAO found that the Army, Navy, and Air Force had different policies and procedures in six out of nine areas related to sexual assault investigation, making it impossible to hold commanders to a clear, universal standard. The report further found “no evidence” that the DOD IG conducted oversight of any of the 2,594 investigations of alleged sexual assault reported in 2010. By not conducting oversight on these investigations, the Department of Defense has no way of knowing if the services are performing them well.

And reports of individual victims show that the services are not performing these investigations well. The low prosecution figures—8% compared to 40% in the civilian world—tell only part of the story. Ignoring survivors’ accounts, laughing them off, or even reporting them for lying or adultery can have devastating effects on servicemembers’ health and careers. Issuing “non-judicial punishments” (or no punishments at all) to perpetrators often forces survivors to continue working in the same office as their attackers, causing further psychological harm and opening the door to repeated assaults.

Representative Niki Tsongas (D-MA) has introduced legislation that would enhance the legal rights and protections of servicemembers who have been victims of sexual assault. This legislation, known as the STRONG Act, would provide sexual assault survivors with access to a lawyer, ensure confidentiality with victim advocates, and grant base transfer requests. It would further require the creation of high-level positions at DOD and in all of the services to coordinate and oversee sexual assault investigations. As the recent GAO report demonstrates, there is an urgent need for the Department of Defense to live up to its obligations under existing legislation. Passage of the STRONG Act would underscore this need and would demonstrate that the country will not accept the continued mistreatment of our men and women in uniform.

West Point’s class of 2011 included 225 women, the highest number of female cadets in a single class since women were first allowed to attend the U.S. Military Academy in 1976. Current statistics suggest that 75 of these servicewomen will likely be victims of sexual assault during their time in the military. Those numbers are unacceptable, and the Secretary of Defense must do everything he can to protect those who serve from betrayal, assault, and abuse. He has no more important responsibility.