DoD Working to Prevent Sexual Assaults
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 27, 2006 Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in the military and in society as a whole, a top defense personnel and readiness official said.
"Some studies indicate that only 5 percent of sexual assaults are reported," Air Force Brig. Gen. K.C. McClain, who heads DoD's Joint Task Force for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, said during the DoD Women's History Month observance at the women's memorial here March 21. "The highest number we've ever seen is about 35 percent. We don't know where DoD fits in that range, but we're in there somewhere."
McClain is the single point of accountability for DoD sexual assault policy matters. The task force, stood up in October 2004, develops policy and programs to improve prevention efforts, enhance victim support, and increase offender accountability.
A DoD directive on the issue was published a year later. A DoD instruction that expands on the directive is expected to be published shortly.
One task force goal was to remove barriers that prevent victims from reporting sexual assault, McClain said. "Immediately following a sexual assault, there is an overwhelming sense of loss of control and a sense of powerlessness," she noted. "For many, the thought of participating in the investigative process is so overwhelming that they chose to get no care rather than to go through that investigative process."
McClain said sexual assault turns the victim's world upside down, and the trauma of being assaulted is a shock from which many victims never fully recover. "And the thought that you're going to have to talk your commander, supervisor, the investigators -- all these people are going to know," she noted. "That's overwhelming for some people, and they don't want to deal with it."
She said some barriers that prevent victims from reporting sexual assault include embarrassment, shame, and not wanting anyone to know what happened to them. Sometimes not understanding the process or misconceptions of what's going to happen prevent individuals from coming forward.
To help overcome these barriers to reporting, DoD in 2005 introduced a "restrictive reporting" option to victims of sexual assault. Victims can come forward and seek counseling and other treatment, but can choose to not have a criminal investigation into the assault opened.
The general said sometimes victims' initial reaction is: "Stop! Leave me alone! I don't want to see anybody! I don't want to do anything!" However, after having time to gather their strength and resources, many victims think about what happened to them and decide to participate in an investigation, McClain said.
A 2005 report to Congress stated that the number of reported sexual assaults in the military increased by almost 40 percent between 2004 and 2005, McClain said. The 1,700 cases reported in 2004 climbed to 2,374 in 2005, an increase of 674 cases.
"Of those 2,374 reports, 435 were restrictive reporting," McClain noted. "So in a six-month period, in a brand new program that was still be implemented, we still had 435 people who were willing to come forward.
Of those who chose restrictive reports initially, a quarter later changed their minds and allowed investigations to proceed.
"Although we hate that we have any sexual assaults, we do think that these numbers indicate that our programs are working," McClain said. "We're still in the implementation stage, so we're not claiming victory, because we know we still have a long ways to go."
Sexual assault prevention training begins in initial training and continues throughout members' careers. It's also incorporated into commanders' training. "Commanders are the key to sexual assault prevention and response," McClain said.
Individuals preparing to deploy also receive refresher training on what constitutes sexual assault, how to prevent it, and how to report it while deployed. McClain noted that the incidence rate of sexual assault in Iraq and Afghanistan is lower than it is across the rest of DoD.
"We don't know for a fact what to attribute that to, but my supposition would be that in the area of operation you're focused on the mission -- quite frankly, staying alive," she said. "You're in a tighter group, a tighter environment with a sense of you're all in this together. We're all family, and we're all working toward the same mission."
McClain noted that the DoD theme for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which is April, is "Sexual Assault Prevention Begins with You." She emphasized that sexual assault will not be tolerated in DoD.
"Everyone from our most junior member to our most senior member has a role in prevention and response," she said. "It's not a commander's program; it's everyone's responsibility."