In Sex Assault Report, Pentagon Sees Progress — And A Long Way To Go

May 1, 2014
Originally published on May 1, 2014 8:32 pm

The Pentagon issued a study on sexual assaults in the military, reports of which have jumped 50 percent in the past year. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says this is a positive sign that more victims trust the system.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. We've been hearing a lot lately about the problem of sexual assault. Earlier in the week, the White House released recommendations for preventing assault on college campuses. Today, the Pentagon released its annual report on sexual assaults in the military. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the number of cases being reported over the last year jumped 50 percent over the previous year. Today he cast that sharp increase in a positive light.

SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: We believe victims are growing more confident in our system. Because these crimes are underreported, we took steps to increase reporting and that's what we're seeing.

CORNISH: But Hagel also says the annual report underscores that the Pentagon still has a long way to go in solving the problem of sexual assaults in the military. Joining me to talk about these new numbers is NPR national security correspondent David Welna. Hi there, David.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So more service members are reporting sexual assaults in the military. Does that just mean that more people are willing to come forward or that more assaults are actually taking place?

WELNA: Well, Audie, you know, it could actually mean both. We do know that more than 5,000 service members reported sexual assaults over the past year. That's up from about 3,400 the year before. But what we don't know is how many cases last year when unreported, although previous years have shown that sexual assaults are vastly underreported. That's based on confidential surveys in which members of the military said whether or not they'd been sexually assaulted. But such a survey was not done this past year, which is why we simply don't know if the numbers jumped because people are now more inclined to report assaults, as Secretary Hagel suggests, or because there were more sexual assaults overall.

CORNISH: And David, for context here, we're talking about some 5,000 cases, right, reported to the military. How did they handle them?

WELNA: Well, you know, actually fewer than half of those cases were under the legal authority of the Pentagon. Others may have been domestic violence or cases that occurred off military bases. Of that fewer than half, only about 500 of those cases actually went to trial. And when they did, about two-thirds did result in convictions and that's a slightly better conviction rate than in the previous year.

CORNISH: Now, after all the attention this has gotten from lawmakers in the last year, what did we hear from Congress on this now?

WELNA: Well, there was reaction on Capitol Hill and predictably, I guess it reflects divisions we heard this past year over whether prosecution of sexual assaults should remain in the chain of military command or be removed from it. One of the most outspoken advocates of keeping prosecutions in the chain of command, the option which did prevail, was Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill.

She called today's report concrete progress because it shows more victims, in her words, have the confidence in the system to come out of the shadows and report these crimes. The chief advocate of removing prosecution from the chain of command was New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. She put out a statement saying today's report should, quote, "send chills down people's spines." Gillibrand said a system where only one out of 10 reported cases goes to trial is a system screaming for additional reform.

CORNISH: And the military has talked about trying to reduce the numbers of sexual assault, but what can you tell us about whether any of this is having an effect?

WELNA: Well, Secretary Hagel said today that he's sent out 22 directives over the past year to strengthen how the Pentagon responds to and prevents sexual assaults. He issued six more today. One of them aims to increase the number of males reporting such crimes. Hagel said it's estimated many men are also the victims of assaults in the military.

Another aim is to do a Pentagon-wide review of policies on alcohol and the risks it poses to others. And there's a series of videos being released this spring that aim to better educate the armed forces about sexual assaults. There's also a training program specifically aimed at junior Marines. It encourages them to intervene when they witness a sexual assault.

CORNISH: And David, these reports of sexual assaults in the military, they come on the heels of what we've been hearing about what's going on on college campuses, where more and more women are also saying that sexual assault is far too prevalent. What are the similarities here?

WELNA: We're talking about basically the same age cohort, both on campus and on the bases. Problems such as excessive alcohol consumption tied to sexual assault are big issues with both of these groups. I guess the most important difference is that in contrast to those in the armed forces, a college student who reports an assault does not have to deal with a chain of command and military justice.

CORNISH: That's NPR's David Welna. David, thank you.

WELNA: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.