WASHINGTON (AP) — Troubled by a dramatic increase in reported sexual assaults in the military, defense leaders said Thursday they want to step up prevention, but they’re struggling to find people to hire and are still developing programs they believe can help them can work after almost two decades of trying.
The idea of preventing sexual assault before it happens is not new. The military services have been looking for ways to do this for years and seem to have made little progress. But this year, officials said they will be bolstered by a $479 million infusion to hire up to 2,400 workers for a new “prevention workforce.”
The latest attack numbers show how many prevention programs have failed. Overall, the number of reported sexual assaults involving members of the military increased by 13% over the past year, driven by a significant increase in the army and navy.
At the same time, nearly 36,000 soldiers in a confidential survey said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact — a dramatic increase from the roughly 20,000 who said so in a similar 2018 survey. The conclusion, officials say, is that more soldiers than ever are experiencing some form of unwanted sexual contact and far fewer are reporting it.
“The drop in the reporting rate,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., “suggests that trust in the military is on the wrong track.” Speier, who chairs the House of Armed Forces subcommittee on personnel, said , she plans to hold a hearing on the matter in the coming weeks.
The survey found that military units with poor command climates or cases of gender discrimination or sexual harassment were also more likely to face more serious sexual assaults. Therefore, a prevention effort focuses on better assessing military commanders at all levels and using command climate surveys to weed out poor leaders.
Army leaders – who saw a nearly 26% increase in reported attacks over the past year – said they noticed last summer that the numbers were trending badly. Army Sergeant Major Michael Grinston said the service spent most of its energy responding to attacks rather than preventing them.
As a result, the Army is improving how climate surveys are conducted, including randomly selecting Soldiers to provide feedback and using those surveys in determining promotions.
“I expect our leaders to maintain a positive command climate in which our soldiers feel safe and can thrive,” said Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, adding that the Army is committed to putting more emphasis on prevention and systems reform to concentrate.
Another program the Army has launched involves more immediate training for younger recruits as they move to their first posts.
Grinston said the new training, conducted in the first 72 hours after a soldier’s arrival, includes vignettes and role-plays to teach troops the proper behavior and what to do if something bad happens. He said that at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where the program operates, the number of sexual assault cases so far this fiscal year is about half what it was last year.
Other bases, including Fort Hood in Texas, conduct similar training, teaching soldiers how to spot problems and respond better and faster. Moving the training to an earlier point in a soldier’s first job places more emphasis on it and is intended to set the tone for future behavior.
However, the development of new prevention work is only slowly getting under way. A key challenge is the tight labor market, said Beth Foster, executive director of the Pentagon Office of Force Resiliency.
“That was a challenge for us,” Foster said. “In the working world in this country, it is currently difficult to hire specialized staff.”
She said the department is developing a recruiting 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 do it themselves.
Once in place, the money and attitude “will go a long way in funding and sustaining change over time,” said Nate Galbreath, acting director of the Pentagon’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response.
More than half of respondents said they were dissatisfied with their chain of command or law enforcement response to their incident, and 30% to 40% were dissatisfied with counterattack personnel. Those totals, ministry officials said, showed a sharp and unusual drop in confidence since 2018, when the poll was last conducted.
Distrust was far greater among women.
For example, only 39% of women said they trust the military to treat them with dignity and respect, and 40% did not trust the military to keep them safe after the attack.
Ashlea Klahr, director of health and resilience research at the Pentagon, said part of the decline may reflect a broader distrust of the military and other government organizations that has deepened in recent years.
“We’re also seeing declining retention intentions and trust in potential recruits and their influencers as to whether or not the military is doing a good job of combating sexual assault,” she said.
Additionally, attack prevention and response staff — including victim advocates, attorneys, and response coordinators — reported sharp increases in workplace stress, burnout, and fatigue. They complained about the impact of the pandemic on their ability to treat people and do their jobs.
Unwanted sexual behavior — which includes everything from rape to touching — has been on the rise in the military across the board over the past year. In addition to the Army’s almost 26% increase, the Navy reports were up about 9%, the Air Force a little over 2%, and the Marine Corps less than 2%.
The big gains come as all services — particularly the army — are struggling to meet recruitment targets this year. Officials agree increased sexual assault may hurt recruitment as parents and other influencers become more cautious about allowing young people to serve.
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