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Defense Officials Tout Progress in Fight Against Sexual Assault

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The Defense Department is making progress in combating sexual assault and harassment in the military, DOD officials said in announcing the release of the department's annual report on sexual assault in the military for fiscal year 2019.

Officials said they are encouraged because the rate of reporting sexual assaults has risen 3%. This may seem counterintutitive, but it does indicate progress, Nate Galbreath, the acting director of DOD's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said. 

In fiscal 2019, there were 6,236 reports from service members on sexual assaults, up from 6,053 in fiscal 2018. Still, Galbreath said, he cannot say that the rate of the crime dropped, because the department did not conduct a survey this year to assess the prevalence of sexual assault, and the crimes tend to be underreported. That survey is happening now.

"Sexual assault remains an underreported crime, both in the military and in the U.S. population writ large," he said. The department uses the 2018 data to estimate that just under 15,000 instances of sexual assault take place in the military over a year.

A male service member sits with his head downward.
SAPR Poster
A 2013 Navy poster supporting the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program is still relevant today. The program teaches sailors the ways they can report and prevent sexual assault incidents.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dustin Sisco
VIRIN: 131030-N-XD424-001

A service member who experiences a sexual assault and wants to report it has two options — a restricted report or an unrestricted report. "We generally view more reporting of the crime as a positive thing, because it helps us connect victims to services," Galbreath said. "It also helps us and gives us a chance to hold offenders appropriately accountable."

More reporting is good because it means more of the victims have confidence in the systems put in place, he added. 

When surveyed, service members believe the situation is moving in the right direction, albeit slowly, he said. First responders — SAPRO professionals, law enforcement personnel and others surveyed for the first time — said that the impetus is coming from senior leaders. Now, they said, the effort needs to concentrate on midlevel enlisted personnel — those most closely allied with troops. 

These young leaders need to model the correct behavior, because they are the individuals most likely to set expectations and foster a good unit climate, Galbreath said.

“Enlisted members in these grades are at a relatable age to younger members and are believed to exemplify desired standards of proficiency, knowledge and effectiveness," the report states. "Participants believed these individuals … are uniquely positioned to lead young, enlisted members due to their frequent workplace interaction."

A teal ribbon pin adorns a pocket flap on a soldier's uniform.
Awareness Pin
A soldier wears a Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program pin at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., April 25, 2018.
Photo By: Air Force Airman 1st Class Monica Roybal
VIRIN: 180425-F-RF516-1088Y

Punishing the perpetrators is one aspect that needs to be pursued, but stopping the problem is the ultimate goal for DOD, the acting director said. "As we go into the world of prevention — and we really do build out a system of prevention in the Department of Defense — we need greater and more empowered workforce to be able to do that," he said. "And in addition to that, we need an additional set of metrics to ensure that we are … moving the needle on this problem."

DOD's focus is on military climate and culture. The shorthand is that good leaders make good units, officials said, noting that units that are respectful and healthy reduce the risk of sexual assault.

It is not an easy fix, and much needs to come together to get at this problem, Galbreath said. DOD addresses the bane of sexual assault holistically with prevention, prosecution, aid to victims and more as the integral parts of the solution, he added.

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