DOD officials said they are concerned over the revelations from the annual report on sexual assault in the military released today.
Navy Rear Adm. Ann Burkhardt, director of the DOD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said the military had made progress on combatting the crime over the past decade, but this year’s statistics show sexual assault rates increased for women and stayed the same with men.
The survey noted that last year, one in three service members who experienced sexual assault filed a report – either restricted or unrestricted – to DOD officials. This is similar to 2016 statistics, the admiral said. Statistics for sexual assaults on men remained about the same, but “we did find this year is that sexual assault prevalence for our women has increased,” she said.
The focus has been on younger enlisted women – 17- to 24-year-olds. “This is where we saw the highest risk of sexual assault,” Burkhardt said. “We need to equip our youngest servicemen and women and the unit-level leaders with the right tools to deal with the climate in which they lead.”
Leaders at every level must be aware of what these statistics mean and be ready to intervene to ensure good order and discipline are the rule in the military, she said.
“I submit that this is a leadership issue,” Burkhardt said. “We can’t be deterred when we see rates that we see that we can’t sustain. Our progress over the decade is we have seen the prevalence of sexual assault decrease, but what we have learned from this year’s report is this is a situation that can bounce back, and we have to then be deliberate and kind of confirmed in our resolution to take action.
Leaders must reassess how to evolve strategies to address the changing circumstances of the at-risk populations, she said.
Burkhardt said her office and the services are working on ways to equip junior leaders with the tools and skills they need to take action in their units and to reach out to “informal leaders” who can help influence the environments where people work every day.
The number of restricted and unrestricted reports of sexual assault increased. Restricted reporting allows victims to get help for the trauma suffered without getting into the legal realm. Burkhardt noted that if DOD did not have restricted reporting, many service members would not report the crime at all. About a quarter of those who file restricted reports ultimately change it to an unrestricted report.
The main concern is that service members get the help they need, she said.
Burkhardt detailed what service members should do if they are sexually assaulted.
First, she said, they should ensure they are safe and then reach out to the sexual assault response coordinator that is available at every base or installation. They can also speak with victim advocates, Burkhardt noted. “That’s key so they can be informed about what resources are available to support them, but also that they understand their reporting options,” she said.
Victims can also speak with legal counsel to advise them during the process, she said.
“It is a passion of mine to think about an environment one day, where we won’t have a sexual assault in the military, both as a mother and as a leader,” Burkhardt said. “It is very critical that the department continue to make efforts to reduce the occurrence of the crime, but also with the goal to eliminate the crime.”
“I think it really is a leadership issue, and that means it really is all of us participate in the process to look at ways to address the climates — whatever unit you are in, whatever microenvironment, wherever you are,” she said. “It can be the smallest things we say when people aren’t being treated right, when you hear a sexist comment or a racial slur or any way that somebody is not being treated appropriately. It’s on all of us to take action, to say something, step up or to notify somebody that they can take action.
“All of us have a responsibility — every leader — to create an environment where these crimes will not occur.”