Amid Pentagon Cuts, War on Assaults Intensified

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 23: U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-MA) speaks to members of the press during a news conference May 23, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The legislator will introduce a bipartisan, bicameral bill 'to combat sexual assaults in the military by holding perpetrators accountable and better protecting survivors.' (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
National Journal
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Sarah Mimms
Jan. 23, 2014, 2:47 p.m.

Dur­ing the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess for this year’s budget, Con­gress made clear to the De­part­ment of De­fense that it needs to cut back, trim­ming the Pentagon’s fund­ing re­quest more than any oth­er fed­er­al agency.

But with the back­ing of a bi­par­tis­an group of mem­bers, Con­gress sent a clear mes­sage that mil­it­ary of­fi­cials should in­su­late one area from cuts: fund­ing for the pre­ven­tion and pro­sec­u­tion of sexu­al as­sault, a grow­ing con­cern in the ranks of the na­tion’s armed forces.

In the om­ni­bus that passed Con­gress over­whelm­ingly last week, ap­pro­pri­at­ors agreed to fully fund the De­fense De­part­ment’s Sexu­al As­sault Pre­ven­tion and Re­sponse Of­fice, provid­ing all $156.5 mil­lion that the ad­min­is­tra­tion re­ques­ted. Ad­di­tion­ally, Con­gress ap­proved $25 mil­lion to in­stall a vic­tims’ as­sist­ance pro­gram pi­on­eered by the Air Force in all branches of the mil­it­ary.

The Air Force’s Spe­cial Vic­tims’ Coun­sel pro­gram, star­ted a year ago, has be­come a mod­el for the mil­it­ary; mem­bers of Con­gress as well as act­iv­ists say it rep­res­ents a re­newed fo­cus by the DOD on re­du­cing as­saults with­in the mil­it­ary’s ranks.

The pro­gram provides leg­al coun­sel for vic­tims of sexu­al as­sault throughout the pro­cess — from re­port­ing a crime to meet­ing with at­tor­neys — rather than solely at tri­al. But aside from aid­ing vic­tims, one of the pro­gram’s ma­jor goals is to in­crease the num­ber of cases that are ac­tu­ally re­por­ted. Sexu­al as­saults are thought to be the most un­der­re­por­ted crime in the mil­it­ary.

And there are signs that it’s work­ing. The Air Force saw a 45 per­cent in­crease in re­por­ted sexu­al as­saults between fisc­al 2012 and fisc­al 2013, with 1,146 in­cid­ents re­por­ted, ac­cord­ing to spokes­wo­man Rose Richeson.

The num­ber of vic­tims who co­oper­ate with an in­vest­ig­a­tion is also grow­ing. The mil­it­ary cur­rently al­lows vic­tims to re­port sexu­al as­saults un­der a “re­stric­ted” pro­cess, through which they can re­ceive med­ic­al treat­ment and coun­sel­ing without trig­ger­ing an in­vest­ig­a­tion or in­form­ing their su­per­i­ors about the as­sault. Many vic­tims are be­lieved to choose this pro­cess to avoid re­tali­ation with­in their ranks.

“We’ve heard from many vic­tims about how of­ten they’re re­tali­ated against if they bring charges for­ward. Over 60 per­cent re­port hav­ing some sort of re­tali­ation. That’s not tol­er­able,” said Rep. Niki Tson­gas, D-Mass., who co­chairs the Mil­it­ary Sexu­al As­sault Pre­ven­tion Caucus and is highly sup­port­ive of the Spe­cial Vic­tims’ Coun­sel pro­gram.

But after the SVC pro­gram was im­ple­men­ted in the Air Force last year, 76 of the 706 vic­tims who ini­tially chose to go through a re­stric­ted pro­cess switched to un­res­tric­ted, al­low­ing SVC coun­selors to help them through the pro­cess of an in­vest­ig­a­tion and, in some cases, a tri­al. “This sug­gests in­di­vidu­als have bet­ter know­ledge of the pro­gram; came for­ward to re­ceive [Sexu­al As­sault Pre­ven­tion and Re­sponse Of­fice] ser­vices; and trus­ted the in­vest­ig­a­tion team and mil­it­ary-justice sys­tem, and the over­all form­al pro­cesses as­so­ci­ated with un­res­tric­ted re­port­ing,” Richeson said.

Vic­tims them­selves are over­whelm­ingly sup­port­ive of the pro­gram. Of the 631 sexu­al as­sault vic­tims who have worked with spe­cial-vic­tims coun­selors, 93 per­cent re­port that they are “ex­tremely sat­is­fied” with their ex­per­i­ence, while 98 per­cent said they would re­com­mend it to an­oth­er ser­vice mem­ber who was as­saul­ted.

One vic­tim who was as­saul­ted be­fore the SVC pro­gram was im­ple­men­ted said that she was ini­tially sched­uled to be in­ter­viewed for tri­al with someone who didn’t have leg­al ex­per­i­ence by her side. “However, I felt a lot more com­fort­able that come the time of the Art­icle 32, an SVC had been ap­poin­ted to me and I was con­fid­ent dur­ing the in­ter­view and not in­tim­id­ated. The same thing goes for testi­fy­ing as well,” the vic­tim wrote, ac­cord­ing to an Air Force re­lease.

Mem­bers from both parties in Con­gress, De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel, and act­iv­ists are highly sup­port­ive of the pro­gram. In a rare show of bi­par­tis­an agree­ment, full fund­ing for in­stalling spe­cial-vic­tims’ coun­selors throughout the mil­it­ary was in­cluded in both the House and Sen­ate ap­pro­pri­ations bills draf­ted last year.

But the lan­guage in the om­ni­bus, like the SVC pro­gram, is fo­cused largely on the pro­sec­u­tion — not pre­ven­tion. Act­iv­ists and mem­bers warn that this is merely the first step in com­batting an is­sue that has plagued the Amer­ic­an armed forces.

“We be­lieve the SVC pro­gram has the po­ten­tial to have a strong im­pact on the ex­per­i­ence of vic­tims who are go­ing through the mil­it­ary-justice pro­cess…. Cur­rent re­forms only treat the symp­toms, not the un­der­ly­ing causes of the sexu­al as­sault epi­dem­ic,” said Nancy Par­rish, the pres­id­ent of Pro­tect Our De­fend­ers, a group aimed at re­du­cing sexu­al as­saults in the mil­it­ary, in a state­ment.

Den­ise Krepp, the former chief coun­sel for U.S. Mari­time Ad­min­is­tra­tion and a former Coast Guard judge ad­voc­ate gen­er­al, said that she worked with many wo­men dur­ing her ser­vice who had been as­saul­ted. Krepp, who test­i­fied earli­er this month at a De­fense De­part­ment pan­el on sexu­al as­saults, said she wor­ries that the mil­it­ary isn’t tak­ing ser­i­ously con­cerns about the cul­ture that al­lows for these kinds of at­tacks.

“Based on the ques­tions that I heard at the hear­ing, it seems like every­body’s say­ing, ‘Well, we’ve taken these steps, there­fore the prob­lem’s go­ing to be solved.’ And the an­swer is it’s not go­ing to be solved be­cause you have people who have been in the sys­tem now for 15 years, 20 years, that are middle-range in their ca­reers who grew up in a mil­it­ary that tol­er­ated [these be­ha­vi­ors]. So it’s not as if they’re go­ing to say overnight, ‘OK, this isn’t go­ing to be tol­er­ated.’ This is go­ing to take years,” Krepp said.

But Tson­gas said she has no­ticed a marked change in the re­cept­ive­ness of mil­it­ary lead­ers to­ward re­du­cing these as­saults over the last dec­ade.

“I know that all the chiefs of staff of the vari­ous ser­vices are very much fo­cused on this, as is the sec­ret­ary of De­fense him­self. That was not the case a num­ber of years ago, when I re­mem­ber ask­ing Sec­ret­ary [Robert] Gates a ques­tion about one as­pect of how they dealt with things and he had no know­ledge,” she said.

But Tson­gas agrees that help­ing vic­tims through the pro­cess of pro­sec­u­tion is just one piece of a grow­ing prob­lem.

“It’s a very com­plic­ated is­sue that has lots of as­pects to it that we have to stay fo­cused on. And [we have to] hold the ser­vices ac­count­able un­til those num­bers show a dra­mat­ic drop and demon­strate a cul­ture that has really changed,” Tson­gas said.