US Army photo by Visual Information Specialist Jason Johnston.
The Department of Defense released its annual report on sexual assault in the military on Thursday. The number of cases reported to the department by service members increased slightly, while the overall number of reported cases dropped due to a lower number of cases reported by civilians against a service member and fewer reports for incidents that occurred prior to the service member’s time in the military.
“The programs and policies we put into place will not be effective unless every military member and leader — at all levels — comply with our policies and embody the values we espouse,” said Elizabeth Van Winkle, executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency, in a press release that accompanied the report.
In fiscal year 2020, the number of reports by service members for sexual assaults occurring during their time in the military increased by 54 from the previous year, for a total of 6,290. This includes reports of rape, forcible sodomy, aggravated sexual contact, abusive sexual contact, and attempts to commit such actions.
The total number of reports, including reports of incidents prior to service and acts by service members against civilians, was 7,816. This was a decrease from 2019 by nine reports.
During 2020, the new Catch a Serial Offender or CATCH program identified 11 matches among multiple reported incidents, identifying potential serial offenders.
Normally a prevalence survey is conducted every other year, to help establish an estimated rate of actual assaults compared with reported assaults, but this year it was postponed due to COVID-19 related concerns. It will instead be conducted this coming fall.
The Department of Defense under the administration of President Joe Biden has said that sexual assault in the military is a pressing concern. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin created a 90-day Independent Review Commission on sexual assault and harassment in the military on his second day in office. “We simply must admit the hard truth: we must do more,” Austin wrote in a memorandum to senior military leaders.
The issues of sexual assault and harassment in the military have gained national attention in the past year following the murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillén, a soldier at Fort Hood who experienced sexual harassment by a superior officer before her death.
The I Am Vanessa Guillen bill was introduced in the House of Representatives on Wednesday by Reps. Jackie Speier and Markwayne Mullin. The bill would move the process of reporting sexual assault and harassment outside the chain of command and into the jurisdiction of the Office of the Chief Prosecutor. It would also allow service members to sue the Department of Defense for compensation, attempting to carve a loophole in the controversial Feres Doctrine that protects the Department of Defense from lawsuits.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi spoke in support of the bill during a press conference, saying, “Justice is needed for Vanessa and for the many service members facing an epidemic of sexual harassment and assault in our armed forces, too often in the shadows.”
The bill was considered but not passed in last year’s congressional term. Speier expressed hope that the bill would be included as part of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act.
Maggie BenZvi is a contributing editor for Coffee or Die. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree in human rights from Columbia University, and has worked for the ACLU as well as the International Rescue Committee. She has also completed a summer journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In addition to her work at Coffee or Die, she’s a stay-at-home mom and, notably, does not drink coffee. Got a tip? Get in touch!
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