Sexual assault spike spurs military to focus on prevention

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Alarmed by a dramatic increase in reported sexual assaults in the military, defense leaders said Thursday they want to beef up prevention, but they are struggling to find people to hire and are still developing programs they think can work, after nearly two decades of trying.

The idea of preventing a sexual assault before it happens isn’t new. The military services have been casting about for ways to do it for years and appear to have made little progress. But this year, officials said they are bolstered by an infusion of $479 million to hire as many as 2,400 personnel for a new “prevention workforce.”

The latest assault numbers show how much prevention programs haven't worked. Overall, the number of reported sexual assaults involving members of the military jumped by 13% last year, driven by significant increases in the Army and the Navy.

At the same time, nearly 36,000 service members said in a confidential survey that they had experienced unwanted sexual contact — a dramatic increase over the roughly 20,000 who said that in a similar 2018 survey. The conclusion, said officials, is that more service members than at any time before are experiencing some type of unwanted sexual contact, and far fewer are reporting it.

“The decline in the reporting rate,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., “suggests trust and faith in the military is on the wrong trajectory.” Speier, who heads the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, said she plans to hold a hearing in the coming weeks on the issue.

The survey found that military units that have poor command climates or have instances of gender discrimination or sexual harassment are more likely also to see more serious sexual assaults. So one prevention effort is focused on better assessing military commanders at all levels, and using command climate surveys to weed out poor leaders.

Army leaders — who saw an increase of nearly 26% in reported assaults last year — said they realized last summer that the numbers were trending badly. Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston said the service had been spending most of its energy on responding to assaults, rather than how to prevent them.

As a result, the Army is improving how it does command climate surveys, including randomly selecting soldiers to provide feedback and using those surveys in determining promotions.

“I expect our leaders to maintain positive command climates where our soldiers feel safe and can thrive,” said Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, adding that the Army is committed to focusing more on prevention and reforming the systems.

Another program the Army started involves more immediate training for younger recruits as they move to their first duty posts.

Grinston said the new training, done in the first 72 hours of a soldier's arrival, involves vignettes and role-playing to instruct troops on proper behavior and what to do if something bad starts to happen. He said that at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, where the program is in use, the number of sexual assault cases to date this fiscal year is about half of what it was last year.

Other bases, including Fort Hood in Texas, are doing similar training, teaching soldiers how to identify problems and react better and more quickly. Moving the training to earlier in a soldier's first job puts greater emphasis on it and is designed to set the tone for behavior going forward.

Building a new prevention workforce, however, is only slowly getting off the ground. A key challenge is the tight labor market, said Beth Foster, executive director of the Pentagon’s office of force resiliency.

“That’s been a challenge for us,” said Foster. “It is difficult in the labor environment in this country right now to hire specialized personnel.”

She said the department is developing a recruitment plan and hopes to tap into colleges and universities and also seek professionals who are military spouses or veterans. She said it’s difficult to say how many — if any — people have actually been hired because the various military services are doing that themselves.

Once in place, the money and the hiring will “go a long way toward funding and sustaining change over time,” said Nate Galbreath, acting director of the Pentagon’s sexual assault prevention and response office.

More than half of those in the survey said they were not satisfied with the response of their chain of command or law enforcement to their particular incident, and 30% to 40% were unhappy with the assault response staff. Those totals, said department officials, showed a sharp, and unusual, decline in trust since 2018, when the survey was last conducted.

The distrust was far greater among women.

For example, just 39% of women said they trusted the military to treat them with dignity and respect, and 40% didn't trust that the military would ensure their safety after the assault incident.

Ashlea Klahr, director of health and resilience research for the Pentagon, said some of the decline may reflect a broader distrust in the military and other government organizations that has deepened in recent years.

“We also see declining retention intentions, and declining confidence in potential recruits and in their influencers in terms of whether or not the military is doing a good job of addressing sexual assault,” she said.

In addition, assault prevention and response staff — including victims' advocates, lawyers and response coordinators — reported a sharp spike in stress, job burnout and fatigue. They complained about the impact of the pandemic on their ability to treat people and do their jobs.

Unwanted sexual conduct — which includes everything from rape to touching — increased across the board last year in the military. In addition to the Army's nearly 26% jump, the increase in Navy reports was about 9%, the Air Force was a bit more than 2% and the Marine Corps was less than 2%.

The big increases come as all the services — particularly the Army —- are struggling to meet recruiting goals this year. Officials agree that increased sexual assaults can hurt recruiting, as parents and other influencers become more wary of allowing young people to serve.

Lolita C. Baldor, The Associated Press