Sat. Jun 22nd, 2024

Pentagon officials are cautiously optimistic that an overall decline in reported sexual assaults among active-duty service members and the military academies suggests that leaders are finally getting a handle on what has been a persistent problem.

“The department’s leadership has made this a top priority issue and has been deeply committed to this work, and that work is starting to bend the curve,” Beth Foster, executive director of the Pentagon’s office of force resiliency, said Thursday.

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But it is a long and difficult road ahead to maintain the progress, particularly in the Army, Navy and Air Force academies, where officials say hazing and other toxic behavior had become the norm.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called the latest report encouraging but added that “we must double down on our efforts to end sexual assault and sexual harassment.”

Here are some takeaways from the latest assessment of sexual assaults in the U.S. military:

ACTIVE-DUTY TROOPS, BY THE NUMBERS

During the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, there were 8,515 sexual assaults involving members of the U.S. military, a decrease from 8,942 in 2022. Despite the decline, the 8,515 is the third-highest number of reported assaults since the Defense Department began collecting the data.

A confidential survey, which is done every other year and accompanies the report, found a 19% drop in the number of service members who said they had experienced some type of unwanted sexual contact.

The Pentagon is seen from Air Force One as it flies over Washington, March 2, 2022.  (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

According to the online survey, more than 29,000 active-duty service members said they had unwanted sexual contact during the previous year, compared with nearly 36,000 in the 2021 survey. The decrease is the first in eight years.

All of the military services saw decreases.

The number of sexual assaults reported in the Army decreased from 3,718 in 2022 to 3,507 last year, while the Navy went from 2,052 to 1,942 and the Air Force from 1,928 to 1,838. The Marine Corps had the smallest decline, going from 1,244 to 1,228.

Included in the 8,515 total were 541 service members who reported an assault that occurred before they entered the military and 612 civilians who said they were assaulted by a member of the military.

SEXUAL HARASSMENT

Service members filed 2,980 complaints of sexual harassment in the last fiscal year, and 1,372 were substantiated. That is a decrease over the 3,201 complaints the previous year, of which 1,053 were substantiated.

There were small decreases across the board for the services.

The survey, however, found a far more extensive problem, underscoring how little is actually reported.

One in every four women in the military and close to 6% of the men said in the survey that they had experienced sexual harassment during the year. Because the U.S. military is roughly 80% male, that means that actually more men — 60,330 — than women — 55,464 — said they were harassed.

AT THE ACADEMIES

The U.S. military academies also saw fewer reported sexual assaults in the school year that ended last spring versus the previous year, but it marks just a small start to what military leaders have said must be a major overhaul of leadership at the schools.

Overall, the number of reported assaults involving students dipped from 170 in 2022 to 137 in the 2023 school year. Of the 137, there were 13 reports filed by active-duty service members about a previous incident.

There were decreases at all three academies: the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland, went from 63 in the 2022 school year to 49 last year; the Air Force Academy in Colorado went from 57 to 45, and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York, went from 50 to 43.

Service commanders are still working, however, to address what was a dramatic 18% spike in 2022 and a survey that found an increase in all types of unwanted sexual contact — from touching to rape — at all the schools. Alcohol was cited as a key factor.

DOMESTIC AND CHILD ABUSE

The Defense Department’s Family Advocacy Program handles domestic abuse-related incidents. According to the report, there were 484 adult victims of domestic abuse-related sexual assaults, an increase over the 467 in 2022. Almost all of those in 2023 were female victims, and Just 3% were male.

There were 229 victims of child sexual abuse reported in 2023, a decrease from the total of 269 the previous year. Again, the overwhelming majority were female, and 14% were male.

According to the report, there were 197 alleged offenders in 2023, and of those 103 were service member parents, 27 were civilian parents and the rest were other caregivers, either in the family or not.

HIRING MORE STAFF

A key effort within the department is aimed at building a larger, more professional sexual abuse response and prevention workforce.

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The services are using an infusion of more than $1 billion in the last two budgets to improve programs and hire up to 2,500 personnel. The new staff will go through additional training and be considered more of a full-time workforce that will be put in military installations around the world.

The hiring process got bogged down a bit during the early stages and is a bit behind schedule. So far, more than 1,000 have been hired. But officials said Thursday that the issues are being ironed out and they expect to meet the goal of hiring all 2,500 by the end of the 2028 fiscal year.

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