Sexual assault in the U.S. military is occurring at a much higher rate than the Defense Department has previously admitted, a new report released Monday revealed.
After investigating more than 100 sexual assault cases that took place on four large domestic military bases, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, released a damning critique of the Pentagon's response to the problem, which included what she said were lenient punishments and a culture of disbelief of the victims.
In the report, titled Snapshot Review of Sexual Assault Report Files at the Four Largest U.S. Military Bases in 2013 (pdf), Gillibrand looked at cases which occurred at the Army's Fort Hood base in Texas, the Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia, the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton in California, and the Air Force's Wright-Patterson Base in Ohio.
She found that nearly half of survivors who filed unrestricted reports later dropped their cases in the process of filing. And according to the DoD's most recent sexual assault report (pdf), "62 percent of women who reported a sexual assault perceived some form of retaliation—a rate unmoved from previous reports despite a commitment to change the climate," the report states.
"I don't think the military is being honest about the problem," Gillibrand told the Associated Press on Monday.
"Even with the much-lauded reforms, the system remains plagued with distrust and simply does not provide the fair and just process that survivors deserve."
—Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand
Spouses of military members and civilian women who live near military bases are also vulnerable to sexual assault, Gillibrand found. But they "remain in the shadows" because they are not counted in Defense Department surveys that assess the prevalence of sexual assault within the ranks.
In addition to its narrow scope, the Pentagon spent nearly a year hampering Gillibrand's effort to investigate sexual assault cases, the senator said.
In February 2014, she asked then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel for cases investigated and adjudicated at those four bases between 2009 and 2014.
It took until December for the Pentagon to supply Gillibrand with any data. Even then, the department only gave her files for 2013, which were heavily redacted.
"We requested this data to understand what happens when reports are filed, how they are investigated and move forward within the military justice system and needless to say, the more we learn, the worse the problem gets," Gillibrand stated in a press release. The Pentagon's response "calls into question the department's commitment to transparency and getting to the root of the problem," she continued in the report.
Of the cases analyzed, less than 25 percent went to trial, and only 11 of those resulted in a conviction. But those results differed vastly from the Defense Department's own report on sexual assault in the military, released Friday, which "estimated that sex crimes are decreasing and more victims are choosing to report them," the AP reports.
Gillibrand, an outspoken proponent of reform of the military justice system, has supported legislation that would remove commanders from the process of deciding how to prosecute sexual assault in the armed forces. The Pentagon is against the proposal. In March of last year, the U.S. Senate rejected the bill.
"These 107 files are a snapshot of the thousands of estimated cases that occur annually—the latest projection for 2014 alone is 20,000 cases of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact," Gillibrand stated on Monday. "What we've found are alarming rates of assault among two survivor groups not routinely counted in DoD surveys, survivors declining to move forward with their cases and very low conviction rates. Even with the much-lauded reforms, the system remains plagued with distrust and simply does not provide the fair and just process that survivors deserve."