If victims of sexual assaults perceive nothing will be done when they report these crimes, it is hardly surprising to learn these crimes are grossly underreported.
Surveys conducted at 14 military installations in the United States and overseas suggest the military has a significant problems with victims not filing reports when they are sexually assaulted, according to a new General Accountability Office report. Fifty percent of victims did not report the incidents. Barriers to reporting included fear of ostracism, harassment, ridicule and peer gossip. Worse, the GAO also found that a lack of help or support is also silencing victims.
The report's findings are highly disturbing. After high profile incidents of sexual harassment, such as the Tailhook scandal of the 1990s and allegations of a significant number of sexual assaults of women at the U.S. Air Force Academy, it is difficult to understand why the Pentagon has not made more progress in this arena.
It can be difficult for any victim of sexual assault to file a report. Yet, in civilian circles, police, prosecutors, victim advocates, nonprofit organizations and health care providers often team up to support victims. Similar supports for military personnel are lacking, according to the report.
At Hill Air Force Base, however, Col. Linda Medler, 75th Air Base Wing commander, told the Deseret News that wing leaders are "extremely active and supportive" in responding to sexual assaults. Hill takes a "no tolerance" approach to sexual assault whether service members are on or off duty. Twenty-five volunteers help train new airmen and future supervisors as to what constitutes sexual assault and how to report it. This is commendable because these steps help foster an atmosphere in which all personnel understand that reports of this offense will be taken seriously, which, we hope, encourages victims to step forward.
Neither Hill nor the Utah National Guard would provide statistics to the Deseret News regarding reported sexual assaults. The Guard says it does not keep track of statistics on trends of reported incidents. This is puzzling because this sort of data would be helpful in directing resources to address the problem. The Guard reports its sexual assault program is similar to that of Hill's.
Seemingly, the military needs to be more proactive about encouraging victims of sexual assault to submit reports. It must strive to create a culture in which it is widely understood that this sort of conduct is not appropriate and that violators will face strict sanctions. Moreover, victims must be assured that their complaints will be taken seriously and they will be supported throughout the process.
It is also important in the respect that sexual assault can impact a service member's and a unit's mission readiness. That should be added impetus for the Pentagon to give this issue greater attention.