Sexual assault in the military has come under heavy scrutiny in recent months after a series of scandals and a Pentagon report that estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact in 2012, up from 19,000 in the previous year. Of the many issues that have been reported, a narrative has emerged of high and increasing rates of assault, a fear of reporting, difficulty in accessing resources, a sometimes re-traumatizing reporting and judicial process, and a misuse of power by some commanders.
The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on the crisis last week, and various pieces of legislation are being debated in both houses of Congress. As that’s occurring, the Department of Defense and the various branches of the military are also attempting to end the problem in their ranks. Here’s what each of them are — or in some cases aren’t — doing so far:
The Department of Defense
1. Re-training and re-screening of prevention and response personnel.
After officers in charge of sexual assault prevention for a Ft. Hood, TX base and the entire Air Force were accused of sexual assault, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered the re-training, re-credentialing, and re-screening of all sexual assault prevention and response personnel. Currently, the qualifications for personnel varies across military branches, but the House recently approved a proposal that would codify and standardize selection criteria across the military. According to DoD spokeswoman Cynthia O. Smith, the DoD is in the process of standardizing selection, training, and certification standards for special victim investigators.
2. Limiting commanders’ power to overturn jury rulings.
In response to another scandal, where an Air Force colonel overturned a sexual assault conviction by blaming the victim, Hagel asked Congress to limit military commanders’ power as “convening authorities” to overturn court-martial verdicts, after a review conducted by the Pentagon in April. Commanders would still be able to change sentences, but would have to explain their reasons in writing. The Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday accepted an amendment from Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) that would enact these changes.
3. Pushing back against restricting chain of command authority.
At the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on sexual assault in the military, commanders pushed back universally against the idea of stripping decision-making power from the chain of command structure. While many advocates support the change, and Pentagon data shows that more than 25 percent of victims were assaulted by someone in their chain of command, Hagel and top commanders argued that the chain of command must be preserved to maintain order and discipline. Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) sided with commanders on Wednesday by rejecting a proposal from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that would have handed cases of felony sex crimes over to independent military prosecutors outside the chain of command. Gillibrand plans to re-introduce her bill on the Senate floor.
4. Revising policies and expanding resources through the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office
The Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office revised its Sexual Assault Program policy in March 2013, according to Smith, focusing on standardizing procedures and increasing training of commanders. The Office further established new standards for medical care providers and is in the process of expanding resources such as the 24-hour Safe Help Line and adding more sexual assault Resource Coordinators and Victim Advocates across branches. The Office will be charged with the DoD’s further attempts at reform in the coming months; its latest strategic plan lists prevention strategies, encouraging reporting, improved response, increased accountability, and stakeholder education as its main priorities.
5. Creating screenings and incentives for counselors and advocates.
After a two-day Sexual Harassment/Assault Prevention and Response conference, Army Secretary John McHugh issued a directive that will require behavioral health screenings for Sexual Assault Response Coordinators and Victim Advocates. The directive also triggers the creation a plan to incentive these positions through career rewards, and restricts the ability to hire these personnel to a small set of senior officers.
6. Training medical officers in evidence collection.
The Army has been developing a Sexual Assault Medical Forensics Examiners program in its South Korea base, with the goal of creating “an Army best practice model program.” Medical personnel are trained in the program to use standard evidence collection kits, and will become part of the sexual assault response process along with Response Coordinators and Victim Advocates.
The Air Force
7. Appointing a female general to head the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
After the head of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault and Prevention (SAPR) program was arrested for sexual assault, a 2-star female general was appointed to the position. Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward plans to reorganize the office to directly report to the Air Force’s chief of staff and is seeking ideas on resolving the sexual assault crisis from outside the military. The Department of Defense’s overarching SAPR office is run by two men.
8. Creating Special Victims’ Counsels to advocate for victims.
On Monday, the Air Force opened its first dedicated facility to sexual assault response, housing newly trained lawyers from the Special Victims’ Counsel (SVC) program created earlier this year. In an attempt to tackle a problem that 85 percent of victims do not report, SVCs will advocate solely on behalf of the victim through the entire reporting and prosecuting process. They are also charged with supporting victims in housing changes and other procedural support. Victim advocates have existed in the civilian world for many years and in the Army as Victim Advocates.
9. Issuing a fleet-wide sexual assault awareness stand-down.
Last Wednesday, in accordance with orders from Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey directed to all branches of the military, the Navy announced that it would be holding a three-week long Sexual Assault Awareness Stand-down in June. All personnel will be required to undergo training on basic sexual assault prevention and response principles and training from sexual assault Response Coordinators and Victim Advocates. The Navy intends for the stand-down to “refocus [its] attention” on sexual assault prevention, but it is unclear how the program will differ from previous training required of all officers. During the stand-down, the Navy will also conduct re-training of all personnel involved in sexual assault prevention. Other branches of the military are required to create plans for stand-downs by July 1.
10. Piloting “night patrol” and education programs.
The Navy is currently rolling out a pilot program in a San Diego base of 20,000 military personnel and 6,000 civilians, where a team of officers patrols the barracks charged with preventing assault. The program is based on an earlier pilot instituted in a Great Lakes base since 2011, which also included programs of targeted awareness and victim support. The program is described as using bystander intervention strategies, but the concept of nighttime patrols could also overemphasize stranger rape over acquaintance rape. A Navy spokesman told ThinkProgress that since the combined programs’ establishment in the Great Lakes base in 2011, there has been a 62 percent reduction in reports of sexual assault. The next locations planned for the program’s expansion are bases in Yokosuka, Japan and Naples, Italy.
Notably publicly absent in recent months are any specific programs from the Marine Corps, despite the Pentagon survey’s estimation that women in the Marine Corps, in 2012, faced a higher rate of sexual assault of 10.1 percent as opposed to the 6.1 percent average across the military.