In 2011, Newsweek published a sobering piece on sexual assaults in the military. The magazine reported that women are more likely to be sexually assaulted by a fellow soldier than to be killed in combat.
And, according to the Pentagon, sexual assaults in the military have increased 35 percent since 2010.
That’s astonishing, and it’s getting worse.
For an organization that prides itself on honor, that crime rate is unquestionably dishonorable.
The Defense Department estimated 26,000 sexual assaults occurred in the military in 2012, but only about 3,000 of the attacks were reported. Fewer were investigated and fewer still were prosecuted.
We’re not just talking about assaults among the rank-and-file enlisted, either.
The rise of sexual assaults reported on the campuses of this nation’s military academies in recent years is startling, with a record number of assaults reported in 2012. And, given that the military estimates 85 percent of all sexual assaults go unreported, we must acknowledge a tremendous level of criminal behavior among the officer and gentlemen class.
So, while U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, is pushing for passage of the Ruth Moore Act of 2013 — which would make it easier for victims of sexual assaults while serving in the military to get benefits — shouldn’t our higher priority be to reduce the number of assaults and aggressively prosecute the attackers?
Ruth Moore of Milbridge, Maine, was twice raped by a senior officer after she enlisted in the Navy when she was 18 years old. Unlike most of these victims, she reported both crimes, but her attacker was never charged and never disciplined.
Given that the Navy knew Moore’s attacker raped her a second time in retaliation for reporting the first rape, that lack of accountability is inexcusable.
That was 25 years ago, and it’s taken her this long to go public with her story. That she is seeking to make it easier for other victims to get counseling is admirable and honorable.
As are Pingree’s intentions in drafting the bill, which recognizes that most victims of sexual assault do not report the crime. And, without a report on record, victims cannot claim military benefits, including counseling.
The Moore bill is modeled after a move by the Veterans Administration three years ago to reduce the threshold of proof for victims of post-traumatic stress disorder to claim benefits and receive treatment.
Pingree is so keen to see this bill move forward that she has asked President Barack Obama to take executive action ordering the VA to implement the changes, rather than waiting for a forever-stalled Congress to act.
We echo that call, but making it easier to treat more victims is not the primary course of action here. The real battle is to reduce the number of sexual crimes in our military and reduce the barriers victims face in reporting these attacks.
The reasons for the high number of unreported sexual assaults among female military personnel are complex, but are due largely to the fact that 70 percent of these women didn’t want anyone to know. According to the DoD, 66 percent of victims don’t report the crimes because they feel uncomfortable doing so, and 51 percent said they didn’t think the report would remain confidential.
For women who are working and living alongside their attackers, the fear of others knowing is enough to keep them quiet.
That’s not right, particularly for a nation whose military might is a symbol of freedom and righteousness.
Worse, how does that lack of trust translate to the battlefield when these soldiers must depend on one another to stay alive?
The reasons that male victims give for not reporting sexual assaults are different than the reasons women give.
Of the men assaulted, according to the DoD’s “Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military” for 2012, 22 percent worried they or others would be punished for other infractions, such as underage drinking. Seventeen percent worried they wouldn’t be believed, and 16 percent thought their performance evaluations or chances for promotion would be diminished if they reported being victimized.
The problem of sexual assault in the military is so pervasive that the DoD is required to produce an annual report that details the rate of reports, the estimated rate of assaults and what the various military branches are doing to prevent these crimes.
The 2012 report showed a steady drop in assaults between 2006 and 2010, and a sharp increase between 2010 and 2012.
So, what changed in 2010? The DoD doesn’t analyze its findings; it just reports the numbers.
In that same report, the DoD notes its top priority is to reduce the rate of assaults through increased training, and that 96 percent of all women in the military and 97 percent of all men are subject to annual sex-assault training.
That training clearly isn’t working, since we’re seeing what Pingree, Sen. Susan Collins and others are calling an epidemic rise in sexual assaults in the military.
In the past two weeks, three military sexual assault training officers have been implicated in various domestic and sex crimes, including an army sergeant at Fort Hood who is under investigation for prostituting one of his female soldiers.
As a result, Obama and military leaders on Friday called for a prompt response to combat sexual assault in the military. Now? When tens of thousands of sex assaults have been going on for years?
There are 1.4 million active-duty personnel in the United States armed forces. And, last year, 26,000 of them were sexually assaulted by a fellow soldier, sailor or airman while serving in defense of their country.
Maybe, instead of making it so difficult for victims to claim benefits, we should make it easier for attackers to lose benefits.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.