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Statement on Sexual Assault in the Military

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.

Last December, President Obama directed DoD to report back to him within a year with a full-scale review of DoD’s progress in the fight against sexual assault in the military. Chairman Dempsey, General Snow, and I briefed the President earlier this week on that report and the results, and today I’m announcing the review’s findings, as well as the latest actions we’re taking to continue to improve DoD’s prevention and response efforts.

I want to thank everyone – and there were many, many involved in this – but I want to thank everyone who was involved in this comprehensive review, which was organized and directed by our Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office and supported by the Defense Manpower Data Center.

I want to thank, in particular, our Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness, Undersecretary Jess Wright. As I think you all know, she has announced her retirement after 40 distinguished years of service to this country. I asked Secretary Wright if she would stay on the job until this mission was complete. She did, and I appreciate that. I know our Defense Department and men and women of this department appreciate it, as well. And thank you, Jess, for your service to this country, many, many long – and, as I said, distinguished – years that you’ve given to this country.

Also, General Jeff Snow, to you, thank you. As you all know, General Snow heads up our SAPRO office. To your team, Jeff, thank you – for what you’ve done, your direction, your leadership, your commitment. And to all who work with you, we appreciate it.

I think you all know that General Snow is going to stay after my remarks. I’ll take a couple of questions, and then he can take you down into the depth of the review and the results and go as far as you want to go with this. We’ve, incidentally, briefed members of Congress on this over the last 24 hours, as well. As I said, General Dempsey and General Snow and I briefed the President on this two days ago. And the White House has all been briefed.

The review both was about qualitative and quantitative measures. We needed and used both to evaluate our progress here at DoD. We asked the RAND Corporation to independently administer a department-wide survey, which was the largest ever of its kind. It received over 145,000 voluntary responses, which is the highest response rate we’ve ever seen. We conducted focus groups that gave us not only direct feedback from our own people, but also recommendations – important recommendations – many of which have been incorporated into the directives that I’m issuing today. And, for the first time ever, we talked to survivors of sexual assault in the military to learn where they have seen progress and where we need to do better.

Overall, the data shows that while there have been indications of real progress, measurable progress over the last two years – with improvement in 10 of the 12 specific measures, including reduced prevalence and increased reporting – we still have a long way to go. Sexual assault threatens the lives and well-being of both the women and the men who serve our country in uniform. It destroys the bonds of trust and confidence which [are] at the heart of our military. Eradicating sexual assault from our ranks is not only essential to the long-term health and readiness of the force; it is also about honoring our highest commitments to protect our fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.

The Department of Defense has been taking aggressive action over the past year-and-a-half to stop sexual assault. I made this – and I think as you all know – one of my highest priorities as Secretary of Defense. And as I think you all know, I’ve directed over 28 new initiatives over the last [18 months] to strengthen how we prevent and respond to sexual assault in the military; how we support the survivors of this despicable crime; how we screen, educate and train our people; and how we hold accountable not only offenders, but also DoD as an institution, and all of our leaders. We recommended significant military justice systems reforms that have since been codified into law – with the help of Congress, with the help of the White House, and outside groups that have given us much counsel on this and support and help – we improved victims’ rights and privacy, and we implemented a groundbreaking Special Victims’ Counsel program across DoD, giving survivors for the first time a voice in the military justice process.

We believe that our efforts to prevent sexual assault are beginning to have an impact. Compared to 2012, the DoD-wide survey we are releasing today shows that the prevalence of sexual assault in the military over the past year has decreased by about 25 percent. We also found that most servicemembers highly rated their commander’s efforts to promote a healthy climate of dignity and respect and discourage inappropriate behavior. And nearly 90 percent reported taking action to prevent an assault when they saw the risk of one occurring.

We also believe that survivors are becoming more confident in the military’s response to sexual assault. Compared to 2010, because more survivors participated in the justice system than ever before, we’ve been able to hold more perpetrators accountable. We now have over 1,000 full-time certified response coordinators and victim advocates, and over 17,000 volunteer personnel ready to assist survivors.

And after last year’s unprecedented 50 percent increase in reporting, the rate has continued to go up. That’s actually good news. Two years ago, we estimated about 1 in 10 sexual assaults were being reported. Today, it’s 1 in 4. These crimes, however, are still heavily underreported… both nationally, and in the military. So we must maintain our focus throughout the ranks and continue to earn the confidence of survivors.

One of the most important ways of earning that confidence is to reduce retaliation against people who report sexual assault. This is a challenge we are very aware of and have been addressing. We now have better data to help us to keep working to be more effective in stopping this retaliation. In 2014, over 60 percent of women who reported a sexual assault perceived some kind of retaliation, often in the form of social retaliation by co-workers or peers. We must tackle this difficult problem head on, because, like sexual assault itself, reprisal directly contradicts one of the highest values our military – that we protect our brothers and our sisters in uniform. When someone reports a sexual assault, they need to be embraced and helped, not ostracized or punished with retribution.

Today, I am issuing four new directives to help close these gaps and build on what we’ve already done. We are developing new procedures to engage commanders to prevent professional and social retaliation. We’re also revamping training for junior officers, junior enlisted supervisors, and civilian supervisors, so that they are better prepared to both prevent and respond to sexual assault within their units, and also to reduce the potential for retaliation. While these initiatives will take time to have an impact, they are critical for lasting change. Additionally, to better understand how local environments influence the risk of sexual assault, we are undertaking a wide-ranging study of prevention efforts at a variety of military installations nationwide.

There’s much more to be done. For example, RAND’s data showed we have a long way to go in fighting the cultural stigmas that discourage reporting among men, and in addressing assaults that hide under the veneers of hazing or practical jokes. And we must continually reinforce accountability up and down the chain of command.

Based on the many conversations I’ve had with servicemembers all over this country, and around the world, I’m also concerned that there may be an increasing use of social media for sexual harassment. Like sexual assault, this problem is not new or unique to the military, but DoD holds its people to a higher standard. If you want to wear the uniform, understanding our core values is not enough. On-duty or off-duty, we must live these ideals and enforce our values every day.

DoD will continue its strong and committed efforts to pursue comprehensive and dynamic approaches to fighting sexual assault in the military. President Obama and all of DoD’s leaders – both military and civilian – are committed to doing whatever it takes to stamp out this scourge.

In May, I told you about my visit to the DoD Safe Helpline for survivors of sexual assault. I told you about the wall I saw that was covered in anonymous Post-It notes – notes that contained inspiring words of thanks spoken by individuals who called into the hotline. I thought about those notes, as I know all our leaders have, over the months.

We ultimately want a military with no more victims, no more calls, no more Post-It notes, no more needed help, and no more efforts to stop it. Because it will be stopped. We’re not there yet, but we will get there.

Until then, we will continue working relentlessly to prevent sexual assault. And we will give survivors the help and support they need.

I want to thank you all for your coverage of this issue, your continued coverage.

And before I take a couple of questions, I want to acknowledge our Vice Chiefs of our services, some Chiefs here, who are with us this afternoon. Their efforts, their leadership, their commitment at stamping out sexual assault would not have come as far as we have come – thank you – without your help and all of your people, and I’m glad you’re here today. It’s been a privilege to work with you on this and many other issues. Thank you very much for what you do.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you.