ARLINGTON, Va. — Reports of sexual assaults within the military were up 11 percent in fiscal 2009, an annual Defense Department report shows.
A total of 3,230 reported incidents were recorded last fiscal year. Of those incidents, 714 were “restricted” reports, in which victims receive medical care but their cases are not automatically investigated.
The report does not attempt to explain whether the increase is attributable to more incidents or more victims coming forward, but Kaye Whitley, who is in charge of the Defense Department’s sexual assault prevention efforts, said the latter is likely a factor.
“With our prevention strategy and our awareness programs, people understand now that we have a system in place to take care of victims, and I think they have more confidence in reporting a sexual assault,” she said. “I also think having the confidential reporting option of restricted reporting makes people more comfortable in coming forward.”
The department expects the number of reported incidents to continue to rise because, Whitley said, it typically takes between eight and 10 years to change behavior, and the department is five years into its current prevention program.
But Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, an advocacy group for female servicemembers and veterans, said much more must be done to protect victims reporting assaults.
“For some assault survivors, the real trauma begins after they report. I know it’s hard to believe,” said Bhagwati, a former Marine captain. “When you are further harassed, in some cases assaulted again, when you’re intimidated by your command, when the terms of your restricted report or unrestricted report are violated, when there’s no anonymity, I mean, these are sort of major elements of the average report.”
In one case Bhagwati described, a Marine who made a restricted report was punished by her command when her performance suffered. She was further punished when she harmed herself and was ultimately intimidated by investigators into making an unrestricted report, Bhagwati said.
The group set up the victim with a pro-bono attorney and Bhagwati served as her case worker.
“Her life was made a living hell until we could get her out of the military, and that’s a typical story,” she said.
Right now, civilians in the military community do not have the option of filing restricted reports, but U.S. Army Europe is conducting a pilot study that allows civilians to report sexual assaults confidentially.
The study is expected to last between six months and a year, after which the department will look at whether to allow all civilians to file restricted reports, officials said. But Whitley said expanding the policy to include civilians worldwide could take up to two years.
“I think it is something that is really needed in the Department of Defense,” she said, “and civilians should have the same policy and be able to choose restricted reporting as an option.”