Sexual assault in the United States military

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There is an ongoing problem with sexual assault in the U.S. military which has resulted in a series of scandals that have received extensive media coverage. According to a 2011 Newsweek report, women are more likely to be assaulted by a fellow soldier than killed in combat. The Department of Defense estimates there are about 19,000 sexual assaults in the military per year but according to the latest Pentagon statistics (2013), only 1,108 troops filed for an investigation during the most recent yearly reporting period and during that period, only 575 cases were processed. No outside audit has been conducted of the military's numbers. Of the cases processed, only 96 went to court-martial.[1] Another investigation found that only one in five females and one in 15 males in the United States Air Force would report having been sexually assaulted by service members.[2]

Incidents which have been publicized include the Tailhook scandal in 1991, the Aberdeen scandal in 1996 and the 2003 US Air Force Academy sexual assault scandal. In an attempt to deal with this problem the Defense Department has issued the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Response policy. A provision in the fiscal 2004 National Defense Authorization Act required investigation and reporting regarding sexual harassment and assault at the United States military academies. A report was published in the New York Times magazine in March, 2007 which surveyed women soldiers' experience in the Iraq War showing significant incidence of post traumatic stress syndrome resulting from the combination of combat stress and sexual assault.[3] 15% of female veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who have visited a VA facility have screened positive for military sexual trauma.[4]


The US Army Study Guide defines sexual assault as:

"Sexual assault is a crime defined as intentional sexual contact, characterized by use of force, physical threat or abuse of authority or when the victim does not or cannot consent. Sexual Assault includes: Rape; Non consensual Sodomy (oral or anal sex); Indecent Assault (unwanted, inappropriate sexual contact or fondling); and Attempts to commit these acts."[5]

The 2005 Defense Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies report states:

"Within the military community, the term sexual assault carries a more far-reaching meaning that encompasses everything from violent sexual acts such as rape, forcible sodomy, and assault with intent to commit rape or sodomy, to indecent assault. While indecent assault connotes violence, violence is not a prerequisite of the crime. Indecent assault can be a mere sexual touching that occurs without the consent of the person who is touched."[6]

Defense Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies report[edit]

The Defense Task Force Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies issued its report on August 25, 2005 which showed both a continuing problem and efforts to deal with it:[6]

Sexual assault overseas[edit]

There was a spike in incidents of sexual assault against female soldiers deployed overseas during the early years of the war in Iraq; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ordered an investigation and held senate hearings over the matter. Over 100 cases were reported within the first eighteen months of the war. Sen. Susan Collins of the Armed Services Committee said “What does it say about us as a people, as a nation, as the foremost military in the world when but surely our women soldiers sometimes have more to fear from their fellow soldiers than from the enemy?”[7] The Pentagon has estimated that 80% to 90% of sexual assault cases go unreported.[8] The fear of the repercussions and embarrassment that could likely follow a report is enough to keep the silence.

In 2011, the Eighth Army founded Prevention of Sexual Assault Task Force, the task force reported sexual assault among U.S. soldiers in South Korea.[9]

Task force charter[edit]

The Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies was established on September 23, 2004, pursuant to Section 526 of Public Law 108-136, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004. Congress directed the Task Force to assess and make recommendations concerning how the Departments of the Army and the Navy may more effectively address sexual harassment and assault at the United States Military Academy and the United States Naval Academy. The Task Force consists of six members from the four branches of the Armed Forces and six members from the civilian community.

Key findings and recommendations[edit]


Confidentiality is a complicated matter with numerous implications for both victims and commanders, as evidenced by the extended debate within the Department of Defense prior to the approval of the new confidentiality policy. Confidentiality, as used in this report, refers to the privileged communications between victims of sexual assault and specified care providers and counselors. Confidentiality supports the provision of timely and meaningful assistance to victims following a sexual assault. Privileged communication, however, is an issue of extreme importance for commanders, not just victims.

Commanders have principal responsibility for ensuring appropriate care of victims, as well as for investigating and holding accountable those who have committed the related misconduct. In our view, commanders can do neither effectively without a privileged reporting and counseling channel in place. The requirement that military medical facilities report cases of sexual assault is but one example of the problems associated with a lack of confidentiality under current military regulations.

This requirement may inhibit a victim from seeking necessary medical care and lessen the likelihood the victim will report the assault. Accordingly, the Task Force recommends: Congress should create a statutory privilege protecting communications made by victims of sexual assault to health care providers and victim advocates.This privilege should extend to both medical and mental health care providers and to those victim advocates designated and trained to perform that duty in a manner prescribed by DoD regulation.

Victims' rights and support[edit]

The Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Defense’s Report on the Service Academy Sexual Assault and Leadership Survey, published in 2005 (presenting data from 2004) stated that the majority of female victims of sexual assault did not report because of fear of disclosure and the resulting perceived ramifications. The Task Force recommends: Further maximize the use of existing and potential avenues for victims’ support and reporting. Maximizing avenues for victims’ support provides more options for disclosure; expands the ability to obtain support and care; and assists in making informed decisions. Based on the guidelines provided in this report, the Academies should establish a plan to implement the new DoD Sexual Assault Response policy and protocol and submit their plan to the Services in accordance with the statute. The Task Force recommends: Provide training to all Academy personnel, to include cadets and midshipmen, on the various reporting resources, the level of confidentiality afforded to each, as well as treatment available to victims. Finally: Ensure victims are informed of and afforded their federally mandated rights.

Offender accountability[edit]

At both Academies available records from the past ten years reflect an extended period where alleged offenders were not consistently or effectively held accountable through the criminal justice system. The past two years have witnessed improved efforts and limited success at holding sexual assault offenders accountable through courts-martials. Although the Task Force finds that the current programs are greatly improved, a key obstacle to increasing accountability for rape and sexual assault is that current statutes, though flexible, do not reflect the full spectrum of criminal sexual behaviors encountered at the military service academies and society at large. Therefore, the Task Force recommends that Congress revise the current sexual misconduct statutes to more clearly and comprehensively address the full range of sexual misconduct. Further, to facilitate the pretrial investigative process, the Task Force recommends the amendment of Article 32 of the UCMJ to permit commanders to close the proceedings to protect the privacy of victims and alleged offenders.

Training and education[edit]

Although the Academies have expended considerable effort in developing their sexual harassment and assault training and education programs, current format and scheduling undermine their importance and continuity. Programs are poorly designed, over-reliant on cadet and midshipmen instructors, inconveniently scheduled, and ineffective in conveying key concepts. In addition, faculty, staff, and volunteers are inadequately trained on sexual harassment and assault issues. Accordingly, the Task Force recommends that classes addressing sexual harassment and assault be graded, conducted during academic hours, instructed by qualified faculty members, and incorporate a variety of instructional methods.


At both Academies, sexual harassment and assault prevention program execution and management is fragmented and inadequate. In order to change prevailing attitudes and social norms we recommend that the Academies develop an institutional sexual harassment and assault prevention plan that is evaluated and updated annually. In addition, the Task Force found that Tactical Noncommissioned Officers and Senior Enlisted Leaders are underutilized resources in the prevention of sexual harassment and assault. Senior Noncommissioned Officer and Senior Enlisted Leader duties need to be clearly defined and provide for greater direct interaction and involvement with cadets and midshipmen, particularly during evening and weekend hours.

Coordination between military and civilian communities[edit]

The insight from years of sexual assault reform in the civilian community is that permanent solutions must be community solutions. The Task Force finds that the Academies have limited formal relationships with local law enforcement and victim support agencies. The Task Force recommends the Academies follow the DoD police regarding establishing collaborative relationships with civilian authorities for sexual assault victim support. Where informal relationships are more appropriate, the Academies should endorse and validate these relationships through documentation.


The record of the two Academies, much like the record of the Department of Defense, is one of sporadic and incomplete attempts to eliminate sexual harassment and assault. Both the Naval and the Military Academies have made progress in addressing these issues over the last several years.

Recent statistics[edit]

A substantial increase in reported sexual assaults was reported at the 3 U.S. military academies for the school year 2010 to 2011. It is possible that the increase resulted only from increased willingness to report incidents; increased reporting has been one of the goals of the Department of Defense.[10]

According to a 2011 Newsweek report, women are more likely to be assaulted by a fellow soldier than killed in combat. In 2010, according to the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office there were 3,158 military sexual assaults reported, however the Pentagon’s statistics say that that represents just 13.5 percent of the estimated 19,000 assaults that actually occurred that year.[11] During that period, 575 of the cases were processed having found to be within military jurisdiction and with sufficient evidence. Of the cases processed, 96 went to court-martial.[1] Another investigation found that women were 3x more likely to report an incident, with one in five females and one in 15 males in the United States Air Force, reporting a sexually assault.[2]

Lawsuits against the Department of Defense[edit]

In February 2011, seventeen United States veterans filed suit against the Pentagon and defense secretary Robert Gates and former secretary Donald Rumsfeld, alleging that they allowed a culture in the military where rape was unevenly reported and punished. In several of the plaintiffs' cases, the victim had been forced to work with the accused rapist after reporting them for sexual assault. Unit commanders often have heavy influence over military rape cases, and less than one in five cases are prosecuted.[12][13] The case was featured in an episode of The Passionate Eye.

Clemencies, arrests and new attention in 2013[edit]

In 2013, two male officers convicted by courts martial of sexual assault were given clemency consisting of having their convictions set aside by respective three-star generals, Lieutenant Generals Craig Franklin of the Third Air Force and Susan Helms of the 14th Air Force, Air Force Space Command and Joint Functional Component Command for Space, US Strategic Command.[14][15] Only Franklin provided his rationale for overturning the conviction. In a six page memorandum, he outlined each piece of evidence in the case which caused him to conclude that there had not been proof beyond a reasonable doubt of the accused's guilt.[16]

The clemency cases combined in public attention in May 2013 with the arrest of Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Krusinski, the officer in charge of sexual assault prevention programs for the Air Force, for sexual battery. Krusinski was prosecuted by civilian authorities in Arlington, Virginia, and unanimously acquitted by a jury of even committing the lesser offense of assault and battery.[17] The issue of sexual assault in the military then received new, sharp attention from President Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, among others.[18] Congressional concern over these events and the issue also brought Marines General Jim Amos, Air Force General Mark Welsh and the Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley to testify on the subject.[19]

Within the next week in May 2013, along with two additional instances of military personnel with sexual assault prevention responsibilities being disciplined for actions at Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Campbell in Tennessee respectively, Army general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey was quoted saying, "We're losing the confidence of the women who serve that we can solve this problem.... That's a crisis." Secretary Hagel "ordered the retraining and recertification of U.S. military personnel whose job it is to work to prevent sexual assault and assist the victims". In Congress, the "Military Justice Improvement Act" was announced. The act "would mean that trained military prosecutors, not commanding officers, would decide whether sexual assault cases should go to trial, according to a group of at least 16 U.S. senators and members of the House of Representatives behind the legislation. It also would mean commanders cannot set aside the conviction of anyone who has been found guilty of sexual assault or downgrade a conviction to a lesser offense", per Reuters.[20] Senators Kristin Gillibrand (D-NY) and Susan Collins (R-ME) were amongst the sponsoring congress members[21] and Senator Al Franken (D-MN) and others reportedly joined as cosponsors.[22] Co-sponsor Representative Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ-9), who once worked as a rape crisis counselor, said, "It is clear that something is not working."[20]

In September 2013, Congress received the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2013 Statutory Enforcement Report.[23] The report found that in FY 12, there were 2,661 reports of sexual assault on military service members. Of these over 1/3 were outside military jurisdiction to prosecute (assaulter was foreign nationals, civilians, unknown assailant, prior to entering service, etc). 13.6% of the reports were found by criminal investigators to be proven false (almost 1 out of every 7 reports). Another third of the reports were found to have insufficient evidence to process (often a she said/he said or “I don’t know what happened”).

Only 1/3 of all reports in FY12 were found to have sufficient evidence and within military jurisdiction to prosecute. Resulting in a court-martial conviction rate of 40.1% ( a higher rate than civilian courts).

One female Navy prosecutor was quoted in Military’s Newly-Aggressive Rape Prosecution Has Pitfalls:“Because there is this spin-up of ‘We have to take cases seriously even though they’re crap,’ it creates a kind of a climate of blasé attitudes,” who asked to remain anonymous because she feared retaliation for speaking out.

As of 2013 in cases where sexual assault is alleged intrusive and aggressive cross examination of the victim is permitted during Article 32 hearings, a practice which has been cited by critics of the military's handling of sexual assault.[24]

See also[edit]


 This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Department of Defense document "Report of the Defense Task Force on Sexual Harassment & Violence at the Military Service Academies" (retrieved on 2011-03-10).

  1. ^ a b "Sexual Violence Victims Say Military Justice System Is 'Broken'". NPR. Retrieved 2014-01-11. 
  2. ^ a b Ellison, Jesse (3 April 2011). "The Military's Secret Shame". Newsweek. Retrieved 11 April 2011. 
  3. ^ "The Women's War" article by Sara Corbett in the New York Times magazine, March 18, 2007
  4. ^ "Female Soldiers Raise Alarm on Sexual Assaults" article by Kimberly Hefling
  5. ^ Army Study Guide: "Army Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program" retrieved June 4, 2013
  6. ^ a b "Report of the Defense Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies" (PDF). Retrieved 2014-01-11. 
  7. ^ NBC News: "Sexual Assault in the Military" March 9, 2004
  8. ^ "Sexual Assaults on Female Soldiers: Don't Ask, Don't Tell" article written March 8, 2010 in Time Magazine
  9. ^ Rowland, Ashley (May 21, 2013). "Report underscores Army's ineffectiveness to prevent sexual assaults in Korea". Stars and Stripes. Retrieved 2013-05-21. 
  10. ^ "Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies Academic Program Year 2010-2011: Report to the Committee on Armed Services of the Senate and the Committee on Armed Services of the House of Representatives". United States Department of Defense. October 21, 2011. Retrieved December 27, 2011. "The 65 reports represent an increase from the 41 reports made in APY 09-10. The Department does not have the ability to conclusively identify the reasons for this increase in reporting behavior. However, in prior years’ assessments, the Department identified steps the academies could take to encourage more victims to report. Some of the increased reporting of sexual assault may be attributed to these efforts as well as many other factors." 
  11. ^ Ellison, Jesse. "Judge Dismisses ‘Epidemic’ of Rape in Military Case". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 2014-01-11. 
  12. ^ Parker, Ashley (15 Feb. 2011). Lawsuit Says Military Is Rife With Sexual Abuse. New York Times. Retrieved 16 March 2011.
  13. ^ Hefling, Kimberly (16 Feb. 2011). U.S. Veterans Say Military is Mishandling Rape Case. The Day.
  14. ^ Post Store (2011-02-28). "Air Force general’s reversal of pilot’s conviction for sexual assault angers lawmakers". Retrieved 2014-01-11. 
  15. ^ Post Store (2011-02-28). "General’s promotion blocked over her dismissal of sex-assault verdict". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2014-01-11. 
  16. ^
  17. ^ "Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski acquitted of groping woman in lot". Retrieved 2014-01-11. 
  18. ^ Dowd, Maureen, "America’s Military Injustice", New York Times, May 7, 2013. Retrieved 2013-05-09.
  19. ^ Davidson, Amy, "Military Sexual Assault: Shame Isn’t Enough", The New Yorker Close Read blog, May 8, 2013. Retrieved 2013-05-09.
  20. ^ a b Zengerle, Patricia, "Top U.S. general warns of sexual assault 'crisis,' meets Obama", Reuters, May 16, 2013. Retrieved 2013-05-18.
  21. ^ "Gillibrand, Collins, Boxer, Johanns, Benishek, Gabbard, Begich, Blumenthal, Coons, Franken, Hirono, Mikulski, Pryor, Schatz, Shaheen, Rockefeller, Hanna, Sinema, Joined by Service Members Victimized by Sexual Assault in Announcing Bicameral Legislation Reforming Military Justice System", search result at Search was for first eight names in headline. Link to actual press release was dead. Retrieved May 18, 2013.
  22. ^ MNCentral, "Franken Co-Sponsors Military Justice Improvement Act; Will Kline Call It a Knee-Jerk Reaction", MN Political Roundtable, May 17, 2013. Retrieved May 18, 2013.
  23. ^ "U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Releases Annual Statutory Report on Sexual Assault in the military". 2013-09-30. Retrieved 2014-01-11. 
  24. ^ Jennifer Steinhauer (September 20, 2013). "Navy Hearing in Rape Case Raises Alarm By JENNIFER STEINHAUER". The New York Times. Retrieved September 21, 2013. 

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