The Defense Department has made strides in sexual assault prevention, awareness and victim support over the past 15 to 20 years, but more work remains.
Army Maj. Gen. Clement S. Coward, who took over as director of the DOD's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office in September 2020, said he has seen growth in policy and programs from his former vantage point in the field. The Defense Department has empowered survivors with additional reporting options, specialized legal counsel, and a 24/7 confidential helpline. However, Coward says, the DOD must continue to be a "learning organization" and do more to stop sexual assault before it happens in the first place.
"The priority still remains to take care of our victims," Coward said. "We also look forward to supporting Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III's guidance to boost our crime prevention efforts and explore all other options on the table to ensure the men and women serving our nation can do so in an environment where dignity, inclusion and respect is the norm."
SAPRO was established in 2005. That year, the department started providing sexual assault victims with a restricted reporting option, which allows them to confidentially connect with support services without triggering a notification to command or an investigation. In 2019, the department added another option to empower victims making a restricted report: the CATCH a Serial Offender Program, designed primarily to identify repeat offenders. CATCH provides service members and their adult family members who have filed a restricted report of sexual assault a confidential way to provide information about the alleged offender and incident to DOD criminal investigators without initiating an investigation.
Nowadays, there is no ambiguity about what a commander should do when a sexual assault victim makes a claim, Coward said. As a result, the department is seeing a fourfold increase in the percentage of victims who choose to file a report of sexual assault with DOD authorities, which the department encourages so victims can connect with support services and to aid in accountability efforts. Coward added that the number of reports made is not a good estimate for understanding how many military members experience sexual assault each year. This is because sexual assault is an underreported crime, meaning that it occurs more often than is reported to law enforcement. Instead, the department uses scientific surveys of the military population to estimate "prevalence" — the number of service members indicating an experience of sexual assault in the year prior to being surveyed.
"Over the past fifteen years, the number of reported cases has trended upward significantly. However, we'll have to wait for our next survey later this year to get our prevalence estimate and greater context for that trend. At the same time that the department encourages reporting to help those impacted connect to restorative care and provide a path to offender accountability, the department simultaneously seeks to drive down the prevalence of sexual assault with prevention efforts," he said. Coward also said that after a decade of decreasing prevalence, rates increased in 2018. "We have been working very hard to step up our prevention efforts ever since we saw an increase in prevalence for young women in the force that year. We now have national experts on our prevention staff and some cutting edge approaches to assess risk in military unit culture."
There have been plenty of advances in other areas of the sexual assault prevention and response mission as well. For example, when the DOD introduced the expedited transfer policy about a decade ago, the department wanted to enable a victim to go to another duty assignment to assist their recovery process if they needed to do so, Coward pointed out. Over the last few years, the department has fine-tuned that policy to reduce the time for victim transfer, he added.
"Over time, we've built a robust, responsive victim assistance program," Coward said. "We now have a database that allows us to document these cases, as well as the DOD Safe Helpline, a crisis hotline for victims that operates around the clock worldwide. Taking care of victims is our utmost priority."
However, he also emphasized that more must be done to reduce and stop sexual assaults from happening in the first place.
"We also realize we have to double our efforts on prevention and ensure those that serve understand their duty to treat everyone with respect. This has to start on day one, as early as initial entry and basic training," he said. "We must ensure that prevention is not a perishable skill."
The Prevention Plan of Action is the department's roadmap to achieving sustained reductions in the prevalence of sexual assault. The military services have also been working to enhance their prevention capabilities using this strategic roadmap, he said.
"The recent immediate actions directed by Secretary Austin are accelerating these efforts. We're going to conduct high-risk installation evaluations to find some things that are working very well, and pass them along to DOD's best practices. We're working with the services to establish a prevention workforce. That's important; our team is piloting the right curriculum for this workforce." Last year the department also published an integrated violence prevention policy to synchronize violence reduction efforts.
Among Coward's goals and objectives for SAPRO is to support the services' implementation plans and strengthen oversight to better examine how prevention programs are translated down from the field to the company level.
Recently, there have been two key events in the sexual assault and prevention realm that have highlighted that the department's fight against the crime is far from over, he emphasized:
One was when Army Pfc. Vanessa Guillen was murdered. Her remains were found months later. The case led to multiple investigations, including an independent review of the climate and culture at Fort Hood, major leadership changes on post and an overhaul of how the Army handles sexual assault and harassment cases, published reports said.
Former Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy and the five civilian members of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee unveiled the results of a three-month examination of the command climate and culture at Fort Hood and the surrounding military community on Dec. 8, 2020. The 136-page report includes findings and recommendations intended to benefit Fort Hood and the Army, reports said. McCarthy took significant measures to hold leaders accountable at Fort Hood, instituted a new policy on missing soldiers and formed the People First Task Force to map out a plan to implement the recommendations in the report.
The Fort Hood case was a "wake up call" of what could occur at installations across the DOD, other camps, stations and bases, Coward said. "Services need to implement policies, programs and other recommendations aimed at creating healthy work environments for our service members."
In the second event, "We got a new secretary of defense," Coward said. "He was confirmed [by the U.S. Senate] on a Friday and on Saturday, he initiated a memo to the force [on sexual assault] that directed us to do things with a greater sense of urgency and attention," Coward paraphrased. "But out of that came immediate actions he provided guidance on, [and] the establishment of a 90-day review. And we're in the middle of that [review] right now," he said.
"I strongly believe what the secretary has directed us [to] do is going to force us to look at ourselves," Coward said. "This is a leadership issue, and leaders take on wicked problems. We need to ensure that the service is safe and healthy and has a high degree of dignity and respect, so our moms, dads, uncles and aunts, still want to send their sons and daughters, nieces and nephews to serve in our great military. We need to gain that trust. We cannot assume people will choose the military as their employer of choice each year when it comes to recruiting and retention. We have to offer them the chance to serve in a climate of dignity, respect and inclusion. That's how we have to look at it."
To find out more about sexual assault reporting options and support, contact the DOD SafeHelpline — the hotline for members of the DOD community affected by sexual assault; call 877-995-5247 or visit https://safehelpline.org. The 24/7 Safe Helpline is a completely anonymous, confidential and specialized service to provide help and information to members of the military community anytime, anywhere.
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