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Incidents of sexual assault continue to be highlighted in the media. One area where the government must take clear and convincing action to stop its occurrence is in the military. Not only does it hurt the victim, but it additionally increases risk for suicide among military service members and undermines mission readiness. All military branches have made it clear that an assault on anyone is never acceptable, but more definitive action will be required before soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines feel safe within their own ranks.
Recent reports by the Department of Defense on sexual assault show the actual numbers of assaults increased in the past two years. Using scientific surveys the DoD estimated 13,000 women and 7,500 men experienced some level of unwanted sexual contact or assault in 2018, up from a total of approximately 14,900 in 2016. Estimates of female victims was 6.8% in 2006, declined to 4.3% by 2016 and increased again to 6.2% in 2018. Victims tend to be between the ages of 17-24, and of the same rank as the perpetrator. However, many incidents involve a perpetrator who is senior in rank to the victim. The primary perpetrator 94% of the time against both men and women is a male who acted alone. In most cases the perpetrator was a member of the military, and was known by the victim.
Sadly, less than only one third of military victims report the assault. However, the number of reports has quadrupled since the military put into effect several steps in 2005 to help the accused. Key among these changes is a “Restricted” reporting choice made by the victim which maintains confidentiality, while giving the victim to access to advocacy services, medical/counseling help, and legal assistance. “Unrestricted” reporting triggers an official law enforcement investigation, access to all supportive services, and notification to the chain of command. Although these steps have been helpful, many claim they do not go far enough to protect victims concerned about retaliation, and fair prosecution. The soldier must trust there will be no retribution, or being passed over for promotion just because they spoke up. Anything less is destructive.
The US military is not alone in these concerns. Sexual assault is a pervasive problem in armed forces across the globe. Any nation with gender integrated forces are grappling with unacceptable levels of sexual assault, including Ukraine, France and the UK. All are searching for their own solutions to these problems.
The military must be more aggressive in its action. Sexual assault in the military undermines unit cohesion, trust in leadership, mission focus, and operational readiness. Service members must have total confidence in each other for protection, even willing to sacrifice their lives for each other. That is what is meant by “I got your six.” Anything less than the highest principles jeopardizes the lives of everyone on the military team.
On an individual level, victims of sexual assault in the military have higher rates of mental health problems like PTSD, physical health concerns, reduced work quality, increased misconduct and attrition. Chief among the mental health concerns is suicide. Military suicides rates are now at record high levels, far exceeding death from combat or training accidents. Unfortunately, this is of no surprise given that victims of sexual assault have an increased risk of committing suicide.
Our service members are called upon to sacrifice everything when they volunteer. They should never have to worry that an attack may come from one of their own. The Department of Defense has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on training to reduce sexual assault, and victim assistance, however, better accountability is necessary to return trust among the ranks.
Senator Martha McSally (R-AZ), is a decorated Air Force combat veteran. As a former A-10 fighter pilot, she knows better than most Americans what it’s like to take the fight to the enemy. She does not shy away from telling others she was also a victim of military sexual assault and knows first-hand the pain and problems victims endure in the service. Her new combat role is an all-out fight to fix the system and introduced the “Combating Military Sexual Assault Act” to improve prevention, training, victim support, investigation and prosecution. Among the bill’s targets are increasing the responsibility and accountability of military commanders to attack these problems, identifying serial offenders and adding sexual harassment as a specific Courts-Martial offense.
These actions would go a long way in protecting victims, prosecuting perpetrators and restoring trust within our armed forces. Any delays in justice, further harms victims, weakens our defense and puts us all in harm’s way. That is a risk none of us should ever stand for.
We are incredibly grateful for the selfless sacrifices of every Airman, Sailor, Soldier and Marine who takes an oath to protect all of us. They make up just one percent of the population. It is up the us, the remaining 99%, to let them know “we have your six.”