(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Spike in military sexual assaults spurs debate about changes

Sexual assaults in the military have spiked in the last two years and a new Pentagon report shows the surge was fueled by one of the biggest jumps in reports made by women in the armed forces in a decade.

An estimated 6.2 percent of the 200,000 women in uniform were sexually assaulted last year, up nearly 2 percent from 2016, according to an annual Pentagon report on sexual assault released this month. Around 0.7 percent of men were sexually assaulted in 2018, showing virtually no change since 2016.

“There’s no excuse for it. None,” said Mark Landers, executive director of the Montgomery County Veterans Service Commission. “It pains me as an ex-United States Army Colonel that this stuff continues to happen.”

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In total, the Department of Defense estimates 20,500 service members experienced “some kind of contact or penetrative sexual assault” in 2018 compared to 14,900 just two years earlier. That represents a 37.5 percent increase in the number of estimated sexual assaults in the armed forces.

The military and veterans have a large presence in Ohio and the Dayton region which is just one reason the issue of military sexual trauma resonates locally, Landers said.

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is the largest single-site employer in Ohio with about 29,300 civilian and military personnel and an estimated economic impact of more than $15.54 billion. Ohio is also home to more than 864,000 veterans, making it the sixth largest state for retired military personnel, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In recent years, the Dayton Veterans Affairs Medical Center has seen more patients who have experienced military sexual trauma. In fiscal year 2019 so far, the Dayton VA has seen around 1,004 vets who experienced military sexual trauma which is up from around 800 five years ago, said Kristen Rodzinka, trauma programs recovery manager at the VA.

Sexual trauma can lead to a number of physical and mental health issues, Rodzinka said, including depression, anxiety and diabetes, among other things. Survivors may be eligible for disability benefits for conditions related to sexual assault and Landers said vets should ask for help if they think they need assistance.

“You don’t want people committing suicide and that’s why you cannot minimize anything to do with military sexual trauma,” Landers said. “You don’t know what somebody will do.”

The Pentagon released sexual assault data in 2017 for military installations around the world, including Wright-Patt. The numbers showed 19 incidents reported to a sexual assault coordinator in fiscal year 2013, 17 cases in both 2014 and 2015, and 30 cases in 2016.

Women at Wright-Patt were found to have one of the lowest risks of sexual assault across all Air Force bases, according to a September 2018 report. But, women at the base were found to be at the 10th highest risk for sexual harassment, the report found.

When allegations of sexual assault or harassment are received by base officials, they are investigated and action is taken against perpetrators who are found to have committed such acts, said Col. Thomas Sherman, 88th Air Base Wing and installation commander.

“We, as a leadership team and Air Force family here at Wright-Patterson AFB, are committed to reinforcing our culture of mutual respect to ensure the safety of all our Airmen,” Sherman said in a prepared statement. “Sexual assault and sexual harassment undermine our core values as an institution and our dignity as human beings; therefore we have a responsibility to ensure that allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment are taken seriously from leaders to our helping agencies.”

Last week acting DOD secretary Patrick Shanahan proposed the military make sexual assault a crime, according to a memorandum sent to the joint chiefs of staff May 1.

The change is one of six Shanahan recommended. The other five include creating a program to catch serial offenders, developing a new climate assessment tool, improving the character quality of recruits, better preparing new leaders and executing a prevention plan, according to the memo.

“As this report shows, sexual assault in the military is an important issue that we are going to continue to address,” Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, said in a prepared statement. “I am currently reviewing the recommendations offered by the Sexual Assault Accountability and Investigation Task Force as we consider this year’s legislation to continue to combat sexual assault in the military.”

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That proposals made by the secretary, are not “bold” enough to handle the problem though, said Col. Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, a national organization dedicated to ending rape and sexual assault in the military.

The number of sexual assault actually reported by men and women in the armed forces during their service has more than doubled in the last decade from 2,340 in 2008 to 6,053 last year, according to the report. It’s statistics like those that indicate there needs to be an overall cultural shift in the military, Christensen said.

Currently, sexual harassment is already a crime in the military because it violates certain codes of conduct soldiers are supposed to abide by. Making harassment its own “stand-alone” crime as Shanahan has proposed may be a move in the right direction, though Christensen said that doesn’t mean it will necessarily be treated like a crime.

“The problem is you have to follow through and actually start prosecuting it as a crime,” Christensen said. “There’s no real reason to have faith that they’re going to start. The problem I have is I think it’s just window dressing.”

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