Despite Pentagon efforts, number of military sexual assaults rises 38 percent, survey says

Photo credit Official Navy photo by Douglas H Stutz, Naval Hospital Bremerton Public Affairs.

Sexual assaults in the military increased to more than 20,000 in 2018, according to a Pentagon survey.

The increase in assaults to 20,500 last year puts the military back at the same level of assaults as five years ago, according to the anonymous survey the Pentagon issues every two years to estimate the rate of sexual assault in the military.

The Pentagon saw a drop in sexual assaults in 2016, with about 14,900 sexual assaults reported in that survey. In 2014, the number was about 20,300. The rise to 20,500 in 2018 is an increase of nearly 38 percent over the prior two years. 

"The Department (of Defense) remains strongly committed to ending sexual assault in the military," James Stewart, assistant secretary of defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, wrote in the report on the survey released by DoD Thursday. "However, this year's report shows that sexual assault is a persistent problem, as estimated prevalence increased across the force in 2018."

From 2016-18, one in three service members chose to report their sexual assault to DoD leadership, the report said. 

In the United States, a person is sexually assaulted every 92 seconds, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and just 5 of every 1,000 rapists spends time in prison.

The people most at risk of sexual assault in the military, according to the survey as reported by ABC, are women service members 17-24. The survey also showed an increase in sexual harassment and gender discrimination -- potential precursors to sexual assault.

The survey also showed that 64 percent of service members who reported their sexual assaults had some type of negative experience or retaliation for their report.

"I am tired of the statement I get over and over from the chain of command: 'We got this, madam, we got this.' You don't have it!" Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., shouted during a Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing Thursday for Army Gen. James McConville. "You're failing us."

.“The numbers released today confirm that that the time is now to impart lasting change within the military and that it is more urgent than ever," Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., said in a statement. "We must not allow women and men to be assaulted while serving our country and we must create an environment that is safe. It’s clear that there is more to do and I won’t rest until we have a bill that combats military sexual assault on the president’s desk.” 

"This is the trip wire," Nate Galbreath, deputy director of the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office said, according to ABC News. "This is what tells us that there's something going on that we need to hone in on. And so now that we have our trip wire set off and we've got a higher prevalence for women 17 to 24. We're going to be focusing very very tightly on that."

“What we now have to do is we really have to focus down and work with the E5's and those first line folks that are right there on the front lines. To be able to say here are the tools that you can use to be able to set good order and discipline."

DoD makes sexual harassment a crime 

The day before the survey's results were initially reported by ABC News and the full report was released by DoD, acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said the Department of Defense planned to make sexual harassment a criminal offense to combat the "scourge" of sexual harassment and assault in the service by November, with plans to pursue "a stand-alone military crime of sexual harassment." 

"To put it bluntly, we are not performing to the standards and expectations we have for ourselves or for each other," Shanahan said in a memo Wednesday. "This is unacceptable. We cannot shrink from facing the challenge head-on. We must, and will, do better." 

Shanahan also outlined plans to establish a program to identify repeat sexual predators, "select recruits of the highest character," train officer and enlisted leaders on how to respond to sexual assault and harassment and more.

"Collectively, we must do everything we can to eliminate sexual harassment and assault in the military," he said. "Sexual assault is illegal and immoral, is inconsistent with the military's mission, and will not be tolerated. We will not rest until all service members can serve in an environment of dignity and respect." 

Sexual assault is defined by federal law as a person committing a sexual act upon another person by threatening them, through fear, lies or manipulation or without consent or when the person is asleep, unconscious or otherwise unaware or when the person is unable to consent because of a substance or mental or physical disability.

If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual violence or needs help, call the National Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-656-4673 24/7 or go to The DoD also has a Safe Helpline for live, one-on-one support that is confidential, anonymous and available worldwide, 24/7.
Follow Abbie Bennett, @AbbieRBennett.