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Research Suggests Many Cases of Military Sexual Assault Are More Violent than Reported

Author: Wendy Innes
Created: 23 March, 2015
Updated: 15 October, 2022
4 min read
While the estimated number of sexual assaults have dropped, the 

Military Times reports that the number of violent incidents reported were significantly higher than previously thought. This calls into question the veracity of the previous reporting methodology, but confirms that the U.S. Department of Defense is at least making an attempt to change its flawed culture and provide some type of transparency.

According to the Military Times, a recent survey of 170,000 service members found that "20,000 service members said they had experienced at least one incident of unwanted sexual contact in the past year, representing nearly 5 percent of all active-duty women and 1 percent of active-duty men."

The report continued, "The figures are down from the estimated 26,000 in fiscal 2012, the last year a complete survey was conducted, a drop of more than 23 percent."

On the surface, this looks to be a significant decrease and proof that the efforts made by the DoD are in line with the promises made by the department upon passage of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014 (NDAA). However, new methodology used by the Rand Corporation found that many past cases of military sexual trauma were improperly reported.

According to the Times, "Nearly half the assaults reported by women and 35 percent reported by men were ‘penetrative sexual assaults’ — crimes that include rape and penetration with an object." However, in the past, these cases were reported simply as "unwanted sexual contact."

By using more explicit questioning, the Rand Corporation found the numbers of violent acts to be more severe than previously reported. Additionally, there is still a general lack of reporting that plagues many cases of sexual assault inside and outside the military.

One of the inherent problems regarding reporting figures for sexual assault within the confines of the military structure is that indictment and punishment lie within the chain of command. If a victim's immediate supervisor is the one who committed the crime, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the victim to report it. This is particularly problematic at isolated duty stations and forward operating commands.

U.S. Senator

Kirsten E. Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has become a champion of active duty service people and veterans alike in her attempt to even the playing field for victims of assault in the military.

Gillibrand unsuccessfully presented a bill in 2014 "that would have taken the prosecution of sexual assault cases out of the military chain of command," according to the New York Times. She was also one of the biggest and most vocal critics of the previous studies on military sexual trauma.

One of the most difficult problems facing the rank-and-file soldier, sailor, and airman currently is how long it will take some provisions in the NDAA to go into effect.

According to Charles Stimson, in an evaluation of the problem by the Heritage Foundation, "what is clear is that many of this new law's most sweeping reforms do not take effect for six or 12 months from the date of enactment. These changes … will take time to effect positive change in a complex system of justice. Thus, those who are looking for quick fixes to the problem of sexual assault, in or outside of the military, are going to be disappointed."

At issue are two key provisions within the NDAA that were amended: Article 32 and Article 60.

In the case of amending Article 60, a commander is not permitted to reduce a sentence, lessen a charge, or overturn a guilty verdict once convicted. Article 32 hearings, akin to a civilian grand jury, were changed in such a way that the victim is not required to testify, their testimony and affidavit are recorded by an impartial judge advocate.

The change to Article 32 was enacted due to prolonged cross examination by the defense attorney in several previous sexual assault cases.

The problem lies in the implementation of these changes. According to the language of NDAA Sec. 1702(d)(1) and(2):

"(1) ARTICLE 32 AMENDMENTS.—The amendments made by subsections (a) and (c)(3) shall take effect one year after the date of the enactment of this Act and shall apply with respect to offenses committed under chapter 47 of title 10, United States Code (the Uniform Code of Military Justice), on or after that effective date. (2) ARTICLE 60 AMENDMENTS.—The amendments made by subsection (b) and paragraphs (1) and (2) of subsection (c) shall take effect 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act and shall apply with respect to offenses committed under chapter 47 of title 10, United States Code (the Uniform Code of Military Justice), on or after that effective date." - National Defense Authorization Act of 2014

Since the effective dates for these amendments took place in June 2014 for Article 60 and late December 2014 for Article 32 -- a full three weeks after the president's due date for a report concerning the effectiveness of the new law -- it is impossible to know for sure whether these actions have had any tangible effect regarding the number of assaults being reported and the number being committed.

Regardless, it will continue to take time to find out whether the Department of Defense and Congress have steered the proper course regarding this tragic mark being perpetrated by dishonorable individuals in our otherwise professional and elite military forces.

Photo Credit: James Steidl / shutterstock.com