HOUSTON - About 4 percent of female service members experience some form of sexual assault each year compared to 1 percent of male service members, according to information gathered for a report discussed Friday by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
In fiscal year 2011, the Armed Services completed 2,353 investigations of reported sexual assaults, a "small fraction" of the total estimated sexual assaults, according to the report, which is still being compiled.
Of those cases investigated, fewer than a quarter, or about 489, were referred to court-martial, according to the report, and for those convicted of sexual assault, 78 percent served time in prison.
As part of their work, the commission also gathered testimony Friday amid a widening sex scandal at a Central Texas Air Force base that has prompted congressional hearings later this month.
Philip D. Cave, a Washington-based military lawyer and retired Navy commander, testified that he's seen military sexual assault cases where commanders have refused to assist the defense because they feared they would be punished.
"You lead to this lack of trust in the system," Cave said.
Nancy Parrish, president of the Burlingame, Calif.-based victim advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, told the panel that between 2010 and 2011, commander-initiated action on sexual assault decreased by 23 percent.
"Victims will tell you there has been command influence, undue command influence when they come forward to report," Parrish said. "They, the victims, are investigated. They are put in psych wards, on psychotropic drugs and investigated other than for the sexual assault."
Parrish called for an audit, noting that sexual assaults are believed to far exceed official reports.
"That's why we're here today, because unpunished sexual assault in the military is an epidemic," she said.
Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, testified that military officials are attempting to address the problem, but that the recently reported numbers of sexual assaults were "unacceptable."
"Sexual assault is a crime and has no place in the United States military. It is a violation of everything that we stand for and it is an affront to the values we defend," Patton said, also noting that, "significant underreporting" of sexual assaults "prevents victims from receiving care and prevents us from holding offenders appropriately accountable."
After Friday's briefing, the commission will accept public comments for about a month for the final report, which is expected next fall.
Military sexual assaults sparked public outcry last year after a scandal erupted at the Air Force's training center at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. Parrish and other victims advocates as well as 78 members of Congress demanded hearings on Lackland, as did 15,000 people who signed an online petition. So far, 30 instructors at the base have come under investigation for improper relationships with 56 victims, according to Lackland spokesman Brent Boller.
Later this month, the House Armed Services Committee is expected to hold hearings on the Lackland sexual assaults.
On Friday in Texas, a Lackland military judge concluded preliminary hearings to decide whether Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jaime Rodriguez will be court-martialed on charges of rape, forcible sodomy and pursing illicit relationships with 18 women, Boller said. If convicted, the Houston recruiter assigned to Lackland could face a life sentence.
Ten others are headed to court at Lackland, including Master Sgt. Jamey Crawford, who waived an evidentiary hearing this week, and faces up to 22 years in prison is convicted on charges sodomy, adultery and giving a false official statement, Boller said.
Last week, Staff Sgt. Christopher Jackson, 29, became the sixth basic training instructor convicted of sexual misconduct since April. Jackson received 100 days in jail, 30 days' hard labor and was demoted to airman first class, Boller said, but was allowed to remain in the Air Force.
A dozen more airmen are still under investigation at Lackland, Boller said.
Advocates hope the congressional hearings later this month and the commission report will result in more prosecutions and a reduction of sexual assaults within the ranks.
"The deference and patience Congress has shown the Pentagon in regard to ending this crisis has come at a great cost to service members who are victims of rape, assault and harassment within our military," Parrish said.