Sex assaults continue to rise in military as flummoxed officials search for...

Sex assaults continue to rise in military as flummoxed officials search for ways to counter the reality

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Elizabeth Van Winkle, executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency for the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, briefs reports Thursday on the 2018 sexual assault prevention and response report. (Army Staff Sgt. Vanessa Atchley/DOD)

WASHINGTON — Sexual assaults in the military ranks rose by more than one-third over the past two years, frustrating an increased campaign by the Pentagon officials to combat what has become a deep, persistent enemy against service personnel.

“This year’s increased prevalence of sexual assault indicates that the crime is a persistent challenge that does not remit easily,” the report said.

According to the survey, released Thursday, there were an estimated 20,500 instances of unwanted sexual contact in 2018 — a massive jump from the 14,900 estimated in the last biennial survey in 2016.

Unwanted sexual contact ranges from groping to rape, Pentagon officials said Thursday. The statistics are compiled through voluntary reporting.

The increase has prompted Pentagon officials to consider making sexual harassment a criminal offense, they said Thursday. They also announced another type of new training for commanders, a new program to ferret out serial sex offenders — called Catch a Serial Offender (CATCH) Program — and unspecified efforts to choose “recruits of the highest character.”

As before, alcohol seems to be the factor fueling most of the incidents, according to the survey, being present in at least 62 percent of the reported assaults. Another key factor is “unhealthy unit climate,” the report said.

Enlisted female troops ages 17 to 24 were at the most risk of being assaulted, according to the survey. “Service members at highest risk for sexual assault are women who experienced sexual assault prior to joining the military, women ages 17 to 24, unmarried women, and junior enlisted women,” the report said.

As was the case in previous surveys on the subject, a large majority knew their attackers. “Sexual assault in the military occurs most often between junior enlisted acquaintances who are peers or near peers in rank,” the report said.

“Forty-six percent of women and 50 percent of men experienced sexual harassment by their alleged offender before or after the sexual assault incident,” the report said.

Patrick Shanahan, the acting defense secretary, decried the results.

“To put it bluntly, we are not performing to the standards and expectations we have for ourselves or for each other,”  Shanahan said in a statement Thursday. “This is unacceptable. We cannot shrink from facing the challenge head on.

“My resolve to eliminate these crimes is stronger than ever,” he said.

The Marine Corps had the highest estimated rate of sexual assault for its female and male members in 2018 at 11.5 percent, followed by the Navy, 8.5 percent; Army, 6.5 percent, and Air Force, 4.8 percent, according to the survey.

“The results are disturbing and a clear indicator the Marine Corps must reexamine its sexual assault prevention efforts,” the Marine Corps said in a statement.

Sexual assaults in the military had peaked in 2006, when 34,000 troops reported some type of sexual assault. Later reports showed downward movement until the 2013 report, where the number of sexual assaults boomeranged 35% to 26,000 victims. The 2016 survey found that number had dropped to about 14,900.

“The odds of experiencing sexual assault were higher in units where the prevalence of sexual harassment or gender discrimination, or level of workplace hostility, were higher,” the survey said. “The odds of sexual assault were also higher for members indicating their command took less responsibility for preventing sexual assault, encouraging reporting, or creating a climate based on mutual respect. In addition, women experienced higher levels of these unhealthy climate factors than men. In sum, serving in organizations with unhealthy climate indicators was associated with greater odds of experiencing a sexual assault.”

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