Increased reporting of military sexual assaults has not led to more accountability, CBS News finds
By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 17, 2020
AUSTIN, Texas — Despite service members reporting more sexual assaults over the past decade, courts-martial and convictions for the charge have declined, according to an investigation airing this week on CBS News.
“What we have uncovered are what we call consequential failures by leaders to change a pervasive culture of sexual assault in the military,” said Norah O’Donnell, CBS Evening News anchor and managing editor, who led the year-and-a-half long investigation. “The bottom line is it’s time for ‘Me Too’ movement in the military.”
O’Donnell and the CBS Investigative Unit interviewed nearly two dozen victims and three whistleblowers who worked for the military sexual assault and harassment prevention program. The four-part series begins Tuesday on “CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell” and will also air on “CBS This Morning.”
“I love and respect the military. This is not the values that the U.S. military espouses. To either have service members commit this abuse or to not hold accountable those who commit this abuse,” said O’Donnell, whose father served as an Army officer and doctor. “What we are really trying to uncover is not only to tell the stories of the men and women who have been abused and harassed after reporting the abuse, but also to look at question of why does this still continue? What is the problem?”
By poring over hundreds of pages of court documents, criminal investigations and reports, the investigative unit uncovered that the number of cases of sexual assault in the military has doubled in the last 10 years. A fiscal year 2019 report from the Pentagon shows 7,825 sexual assault reports involving service members as victims or subjects, a 3% increase compared to 2018.
An anonymous workplace survey -- the 2018 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active-Duty Members -- found that 20,473 service members said they experienced sexual assault within the past year — an increase of 38% from 14,900 in fiscal year 2016, when the survey was last conducted.
The workplace survey also found that 64% women who reported a sexual assault said they experienced retaliation.
Of those who reported assaults in 2019, 57 victims said they faced retaliation because of the report, according to the investigation. Only one of those cases went to court-martial.
“It’s good that the reporting structure exists and that more and more people are feeling comfortable about reporting it,” O’Donnell said. “But has that lead to more courts-martial? No. We found fewer courts-martial, which doesn’t seem to make sense. If there are more reports wouldn’t statistically there be more courts-martial?”
At the same time, administrative actions have risen, showing that more commanders are looking for routes outside of the military justice system to deal with sexual assault and rape reports, according to the investigation. These actions are kept within personnel files and don’t require judicial punishments such as registering as a sex offender.
Of the nearly two dozen victims interviewed, four chose to speak on camera, O’Donnell said. The parents of another service member, Army Pvt. Nicole Burnham, also spoke to her on camera.
They described how their daughter died by suicide after being raped and then harassed and threatened by other soldiers for reporting the crime. The assaults occurred while serving in Korea, and Burnham’s parents said it took 82 days for the Army to approve an expedited transfer back to the U.S. During that time Burnham told her parents she had no resources or support available to her.
“Many of the victims are so grateful to be heard and that someone cares about what’s happened to them. That someone views their story as worthy to tell,” O’Donnell said. “These are incredibly strong women and then they did not receive the support they deserve.”
Meanwhile, the Defense Department has spent tens of millions of dollars to address the issue, O’Donnell said. The three whistleblowers interviewed for the report were hired to work at different military bases for the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
“I think the breadth and the depth of the problem is so large that they really don’t want the general public to understand that they don’t have it under control,” one said.
The whistleblowers said that the people there to help victims are themselves being retaliated against or in some cases fired or reprimanded for doing their job.
“Then you realize the complexity of just how hard it is to report sexual abuse, to get support when you report sexual abuse and to not face additional harassment and additional reprimand,” O’Donnell said. “It was another layer of this reporting to just prove how difficult it is to get through this system.”
One whistleblower also explained that because the military is like a family, reporting sexual assault can feel more emotional, because it divides the family.
“That’s the cultural part and why some believe that’s why the reporting structure has to be taken either outside the military or taken to a more independent body,” O’Donnell said, noting that the case of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén has reignited these calls even after legislation mandating these reforms has failed to get through the Senate since 2014.
Guillén was reported missing April 22 from Fort Hood, Texas, and national media covered the more than two-month search for her. Law enforcement found the soldier’s body buried and concealed in concrete along a river about 20 miles from the base.
During the search for Guillén, her family said she had faced sexual harassment on base, but she was too afraid to report it to her chain of command. After Spc. Aaron Robinson was identified as her killer, the family said he was her harasser.
Guillén’s case triggered a new bill that would make sexual harassment a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and overhaul the handling of sexual assault allegations. Titled the I am Vanessa Guillén Act of 2020, the bill has 180 cosponsors in the House.
While much of O’Donnell’s reporting preceded Guillén’s case, she said the soldier’s story is important because “it’s brought the attention that this subject matter deserves.”
Like Guillén, many of the women O’Donnell spoke to told her that joining the military had been a lifelong goal and career, but instead they “faced rape and assault.”
“We are bringing to light the emotional sacrifice that many of these women have faced, to then press forward on what needs to change and what is it going to take to change that,” O’Donnell said. “This type of abuse and criminal behavior is at odds with what the military stands for.”
The Defense Department declined an on-camera interview with CBS. In separate statements, the individual military branches all said they are committed to stopping sexual assault within their ranks.