WASHINGTON: Reports of sexual assault involving servicemembers rose by 11 percent in fiscal 2009, a senior Defense Department official said yesterday.
In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 3,230 reports of sexual assault were filed.
An increase in reporting was a goal for the department, said Kaye Whitley, director of the Defense Department’s sexual abuse prevention and response office.
“Research in the civilian community shows that sexual assault is widely underreported, and we believe that is the same in the military,” she said. “As a result, increasing reporting has been one of our key goals. We want people who are victims of sexual assault to come forward so they can get the help that they need.”
The department’s goal is to create a “climate of confidence” so that people will come forward to report, she added.
One aspect of the program is a confidential reporting option called “restricted reporting,” which lifts some of the barriers that can deter military personnel from reporting sexual assault. Unrestricted reporting means the victim’s command is notified and an investigation initiated. Under the restricted reporting option, the command is not notified and an investigation does not follow. Still, the victim can receive medical, mental health and all other services without becoming involved in the military criminal justice process.
Ms. Whitley said the number of sexual assaults in the military probably is comparable to the civilian community, but that direct comparisons are hard to make. The overall rate for the Defense Department was two reports of sexual assault per thousand servicemembers. In the Army, the rate was 2.6 per thousand. In the Navy it was 1.6 per thousand, in the Air Force 1.4 per thousand, and in the Marine Corps 1.3 per thousand. Service-specific data, including the total numbers of reports, is included in the annual report.
“Our total number includes both perpetrators and victims,” Ms. Whitley said. The data covers eight categories of sexual assault ranging from the least-egregious wrongful sexual contact to rape.
“We need to keep in mind that these are reports where the victim or the perpetrator was a military member,” Ms. Whitley said. The reports include sexual assaults reported that involved a military member against a military member, a military member against a civilian or a civilian against a military member, she explained.
Last year, Ms. Whitley said, 123 victims converted their restricted reports to the unrestricted category.
“What we find are those people who are victims of sexual assault, they feel a loss of control,” Ms. Whitley said. “Then, when we meet with them and give them these reporting options, they get a little bit of that control back. So often, they will go home and if they feel supported and start feeling comfortable with reporting it, they will change it to an unrestricted report, in which case we can investigate and prosecute.”
The restricted reporting option has been in place since 2005, and it fills a need, Ms. Whitley said. “We’ve had over 3,600 people use that option since then, so that tells me that over 3,600 people wouldn’t have come forward otherwise,” she said.
Ms. Whitley said she would like to think the rise in reported cases has resulted from the emphasis the department is putting on sexual abuse prevention and the department’s efforts to tell people about the program.
Last year, the theme of the awareness and education campaign was “My Strength for Defending: Preventing Sexual Assault Part of My Duty.” This year’s theme — “Hurts one. Affects all. Preventing sexual assault is everyone’s duty” — builds on that and concentrates on readiness, Ms. Whitley said.