- Associated Press - Monday, February 8, 2016

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City had the second most sexual assault convictions out of 72 military installations that were surveyed in a recent federal report.

An Air Force study of sexual-assault court-martial convictions shows there were eight at Ellsworth from 2010 through March 2015, the Rapid City Journal (https://bit.ly/1Q4XoO3 ) reported. Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland topped the list with 16 sexual assault convictions over the same period.

The numbers show that the military justice system is growing more responsive to victims of sexual assault, according to Eunice Bernadette “Bernie” McFarling, the base’s sexual-assault response coordinator.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean more assaults are happening,” she said. “With more education and awareness, folks are realizing now where to turn for help, and that message is going out to the airmen.”

But it’s difficult to draw conclusions from conviction numbers because the number of sexual assault allegations filed at any particular base isn’t publicly available, said Don Christensen, a Sturgis native and former chief prosecutor of the U.S. Air Force, who’s currently president of Protect our Defenders, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for military sexual-assault victims. The high conviction numbers don’t necessarily mean there have been more assaults or a better responsiveness to victims, he said.

The public scrutiny of the military’s handling of sexual assault cases has produced some positive changes in recent years, but not enough, Christensen said.

“In some ways it’s getting better, but in some ways it’s not,” he said. “One of the biggest problems we still have is the hostility toward people who report.”

In an effort to quell that hostility against those who allege sexual assault, the U.S. Department of Defense in 2004 created a task force, which eventually became the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.

The efforts to prevent and prosecute sexual assaults at Ellsworth are part of a broader national effort to confront sexual assault in the military.

About 18,900 military personnel were victims of unwanted sexual contact during the 2014 fiscal year, which was down 27 percent from 2012, according to data published last year.

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Information from: Rapid City Journal, https://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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