HEIDELBERG, Germany — Civilians within U.S. Army Europe can no longer confidentially report a sexual assault. The six-month pilot program ended last week, even though the Defense Department is poised to change its policy worldwide to allow civilian workers and spouses to make confidential reports.

“That’s what we’re moving toward,” said Carolyn Collins, director of the Army’s Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention program. The Office of the Secretary of Defense “is of that mindset as well.”

In March, USAREUR became the first military command to offer civilians the option of making confidential, or “restricted,” reports, which don’t involve police or the chain of command. Such confidentiality is thought to encourage more victims to come forward and get the help they need, and let them control the aftermath of what many victims see as a humiliating and personal trauma.

The new reporting option for civilians — the same as soldiers have had since 2005 — was billed as a six-month pilot program. Weeks before the six months was up, USAREUR asked that the program be extended.

“We’ve sent the request to [the Department of the Army],” Maj. Valerie Henderson, a USAREUR spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail. “We can’t speculate on what decision will be made or how long it will take to receive a decision.”

In the meantime, law enforcement would be involved in any civilian reports filed after Sept. 1, she said. Health care workers and sexual assault victim advocates would be required to report civilian assaults. Only chaplains would be allowed to keep an assault confidential.

Collins said that her office and the Department of the Army are in favor of extending the program, and they had recommended an extension to the Secretary of Defense’s office, which has final approval because sexual assault reporting requirements are a Defense Department policy.

Collins said she thought approval would be granted shortly, and the USAREUR program could resume.

Since the pilot program began, three civilians have made “restricted” reports, according to USAREUR figures. Those victims were able to receive medical care and counseling and maintain their privacy.

“Quite honestly, it was a short period to run a pilot,” Collins said.

It was likely that whatever the result of a pilot program, Collins said, Defense Department officials would still agree that civilians should be afforded restricted reporting. DOD has sent a draft policy, she said, extending it to all civilian military workers and family members older than 18.

“It does take a little while to get policy changed,” she said.

Civilians accounted for nearly one-third of sexual assault victims in military communities worldwide, according to a Defense Department report to Congress last year.

For years, the DOD has been examining ways to reduce the number of sexual assaults within the armed forces — and to offer victims better support when attacks occur. The 2009 Defense Department report counted 3,230 reports of sexual assault filed involving servicemembers as victims or assailants in the 2008 fiscal year, an 11 percent increase over the previous year.

And while getting post-assault care confidentially — without triggering an investigation and the notoriety that experts say often results — has been available to soldiers since 2005, the USAREUR pilot program was the first to focus on the confidentiality of civilian victims.

“It kind of just makes sense. Why wouldn’t we have it?” said Maj. Heidi Whitescarver, chief of soldier and family readiness for USAREUR, after the new program was announced. “The concept is we want victims to come forward. If the concern of an investigation is preventing them from coming forward and getting help, we want to remove that.”

Getting the option for civilians required an “exception to policy.’’

Gen. Carter Ham, USAREUR commander, had asked Army officials for the exception, noting that civilians living in the States can use rape crisis centers and private doctors to receive medical care and support without involving military or civilian law enforcement or the judicial process.

“This is not true in Europe,” he said.

Sexual assault, including rape, is among the least reported crimes in the general U.S. population and in the military, experts say. The DOD estimates that only 20 percent of its sexual assaults are reported.

That’s why confidential reporting was made available to soldiers five years ago. Then, women’s advocacy groups and rape experts convinced the Defense Department that the vast majority of soldiers who were raped were suffering in silence. Female soldiers, the experts pointed out, were afraid to report it. They felt they’d be steamrolled and stigmatized by the system, thought of as weak, disloyal, untruthful and promiscuous. That they’d be blamed.

Some of those same barriers affect civilian women as well, experts say, especially in small, closed military communities.

Richard Lopez, former Family Advocacy program manager at the Installation Management Command-Europe, said in one local case he knew of, the wife of a deployed soldier was raped by one of his friends. The friend had shown up at her door one day, and when she let him in, “he raped her on the kitchen floor,” Lopez said.

The woman, who called a rape hotline, was ashamed and humiliated, he said, and didn’t want anyone to know. She knew some people would blame her, Lopez said, and think she’d been unfaithful to her husband.

But under the regular policy guiding sexual assault reporting for civilians, the authorities must be informed. If she went to the doctor or told a counselor, they’d be duty-bound to report her rape to law enforcement. Military police would in turn inform the garrison commander, her husband’s command and her attacker’s command.

When sexual assault reports do go through the chain of command and trigger an investigation, victims can feel re-victimized. And the end result is often less than satisfactory, victims’ advocates say.

Some 200 reports of sexual assault have been made in U.S. Army Europe each year for the past several years, said Rosalind Dennis, manager of the Sexual Assault and Prevention Program.

Most of them are “unrestricted” and known to commanders and law enforcement. Last year, for example, 170 of 199 reports were unrestricted.

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now