The Defense Department must take bold steps to put prevention and reporting at the forefront of its fight against sexual assault and harassment or the behaviors will remain a persistent problem for the military, according to a report released Monday by the Rand Corp.

The 11 recommendations of the report focus mostly on Defense Department policies and procedures that could do more to better track instances of assault and harassment such as allegations levied against a service member throughout his or her career and improving the quality of training troops receive, as well as the funding and personnel allocated to bases. It also recommended improving accountability of commanders who manage the allegations, while empowering them to use appropriate punishment for low-level offenses that could escalate.

The eight authors of the report from the nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution, titled “Countering Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military: Lessons from RAND Research,” combed through years of the corporation’s own studies to determine the changes needed to break through the department’s stagnant efforts.

“The numbers underscore the significant challenges the [department] faces in combating these issues,” said Joie Acosta, senior behavioral and social scientist at Rand and lead author of the report. “While some improvements have been made in prevention capabilities, the reality is that the [department] doesn’t have the organizational infrastructure in place to close the chasm between where they are and where they need to be.”

The report joined a growing list of findings and investigations — conducted internally and outside the military — that have found the military must do more when it comes to prevention and accountability of sexual assault and harassment. While some changes are underway, major overhauls, including those that require action from Congress, remain ongoing and up for debate.

“It seems, especially with everything that has been brought up over the past year, the public is finally getting somewhat of an insight into the sexual assault problem within our military, since the tragic death of Spc. Vanessa Guillen,” said Navy veteran Kaitlynne Hetrick, an associate of government affairs for the veterans group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “It seems as though they've definitely made improvements, but there is a lot to be done.”

Guillen was killed by another soldier in April 2020 at Fort Hood, Texas, and her death created a movement among service members and veterans to call for change in the way the military handles sexual assault and harassment. Two investigations were launched in response to her death, and one found a noncommissioned officer in her chain of command sexually harassed Guillen and her informal reports to other leaders were not handled properly. The report did not find that Guillen was harassed by her suspected killer, who later died by suicide.

Earlier this month, the Defense Department released the findings of the 90-day Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault and Harassment, which was appointed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin as he took office in January. The commission made 82 recommendations in four priority areas of accountability, prevention, climate and culture, and victim care and support.

Following that report, Austin said “any changes will need to be well-designed and well-resourced for effective implementations, be clear to the entire force, and be measured regularly for effectiveness.”

He also released guidance that agreed with the commission’s recommendation to move prosecution of sexual assault and related crimes from the military chain of command. Legislation is also moving through Congress that would do this as advocates have cited the Defense Department’s inability to rein in the problem.

The Defense Department began efforts about 10 years ago to curb incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment, but there has been little improvement and rates appear to be trending upward — especially for female service members, according to the Rand report. It estimates 1 in 16 women in the military have experienced sexual assault and 1 in 4 have experienced sexual harassment. The prevalence among men is 1 in 143 for sexual assault and 1 in 16 for sexual harassment.

The research also noted a previously known gap in reporting. In 2018, the Defense Department received 6,053 reports of sexual assault compared to survey data on prevalence that suggested more than 20,000 service members were assaulted in the same year.

Among the Rand authors’ key findings, they said, “Without bold action, sexual assault and sexual harassment will continue to have negative consequences for the military.”

Last month, Rand released an Army-focused report that called out specific factors that put soldiers at higher risk of becoming a victim of sexual assault and harassment, such as their job, duty station or unit assignment. Monday’s report recommended the military conduct further research on those units with unusually high- or low-documented cases of sexual assault and harassment, while also looking into new prevention approaches that target command climate and the unique risks faced by LGBTQ troops.

Hetrick agreed that using risk factors to curb unwanted sexual behavior is insightful and important to include alongside other efforts.

“If we take a look at it, maybe we'll be more inclined to pay attention to what is causing that to be a risk factor,” she said. “Paying attention to those [command climate] surveys and ensuring that we are improving the lives of our service members and making sure that their day-to-day life on base isn't horrific is instrumental to making sure that we have a completely ready military.”

Activists hold signs depicting Spc. Vanessa Guillen at a rally July 30, 2020, in Washington, D.C. Guillen's family said Vanessa, who was killed at Fort Hood in April 2020, told them she was being sexually harassed but was too afraid to report it.

Activists hold signs depicting Spc. Vanessa Guillen at a rally July 30, 2020, in Washington, D.C. Guillen's family said Vanessa, who was killed at Fort Hood in April 2020, told them she was being sexually harassed but was too afraid to report it. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)

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Rose L. Thayer is based in Austin, Texas, and she has been covering the western region of the continental U.S. for Stars and Stripes since 2018. Before that she was a reporter for Killeen Daily Herald and a freelance journalist for publications including The Alcalde, Texas Highways and the Austin American-Statesman. She is the spouse of an Army veteran and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism. Her awards include a 2021 Society of Professional Journalists Washington Dateline Award and an Honorable Mention from the Military Reporters and Editors Association for her coverage of crime at Fort Hood.

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