Sexual assaults in the military increased dramatically over the past two years, new Defense Department data show, sparking outrage from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who charged Thursday that the Pentagon is failing the nation’s women and men in uniform.
A disturbing Pentagon report found that instances of “unwanted sexual contact” in the armed forces increased by about 38 % from 2016 to 2018. The anonymous survey is conducted every two years, and its release coincided with a new push from acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Thursday to criminalize sexual harassment and take other steps to get a handle on an epidemic that’s plagued the services for years.
Thursday’s study found 20,500 instances of sexual assault. In 2016, the reported figure was 14,900.
The problem received new prominence in March when freshman Sen. Martha McSally, Arizona Republican, went public with her own experience of being raped by a superior office while she was serving as fighter jet pilot in the Air Force before she left the service in 2010.
The most recent numbers are the highest since 2012, when 26,000 military men and women reported unwanted sexual contact. It’s also significantly higher than a decade ago. In 2010, there were 19,300 reported instances of sexual assault. Female troops between the ages of 17 and 24 are at the highest risk of assault, the study shows.
Pentagon officials conceded the problem is getting worse.
“To put it bluntly, we are not performing to the standards and expectations we have for ourselves or for each other,” Mr. Shanahan said in a Thursday memo. “This is unacceptable. We cannot shrink from facing the challenge head on. We must, and will, do better.”
Mr. Shanahan also outlined a series of steps to stem the rising tide of sexual assaults. But that did little to quell the outrage on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers — especially female members of Congress who have made the issue a top political priority in recent years — excoriated military officials for failing to force upon the armed forces a badly needed culture change.
“I am tired of excuses. I am tired of statements from commanders that say zero tolerance,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat and 2020 presidential candidate, said at a Thursday Senate hearing. “I am tired of the statement I get over and over from the chain of command: ‘We got this, ma’am. We got this.’ You don’t have it. You’re failing us.”
Ms. Gillibrand made the comments during a confirmation hearing for Gen. James McConville, nominated to be the next Army chief of staff.
Ms. McSally was one of a number of Republicans also seized on the figures Thursday to push for most lasting change.
“The numbers released today confirm that the time is now to impart lasting change within the military and that it is more urgent than ever,” she said. “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.”
The Defense Department’s recommended changes include a new system of assessment in individual military units; the launch of a “Catch a Serial Predator” program to identify repeat offenders; new efforts to “select recruits of the highest character;” and other steps.
But perhaps the biggest overhaul will come with respect to sexual harassment. Mr. Shanahan said he’ll seek to classify sexual harassment as a standalone crime.
Sexual harassment right now isn’t its own crime under military law — a fact that critics say makes it much harder to crack down on those who create a negative culture inside units.
Pentagon officials believe changing that underlying culture inside the military is a key component to reversing the troubling trend.
“When they’re joking around, making jokes that may be perfectly acceptable in the civilian world, it’s not acceptable in the military and it creates a culture and climate that is very much counter to good order and discipline,” said Elizabeth Van Winkle, executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency, at the Pentagon.
⦁ Lauren Meier contributed to this report.
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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