U.S. Marines salute during a formation on Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., Sept 4, 2012. (Cpl. Jamean Berry/U.S. Marine Corps).

Sexual assaults are down across the military for the first time in a decade as incident reports by service members increased, a Pentagon report found.

“For the first time in nearly 10 years, the department is seeing a decrease in sexual assault prevalence,” said Elizabeth Foster, executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency for the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. “The department estimates that nearly 7,000 fewer service members experienced sexual assault in 2023 than in 2021.”

Across the DOD, there was a “statistically significant decrease in unwanted sexual contact for women” in penetrative and non-penetrative types of crime, said Nate Galbreath, acting director for the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. The numbers were largely driven by decreases for women in the Navy and Air Force, he said. 

For men, the trend was also downward for men but the change was not statistically significant, Galbreath said during a press conference on Thursday for the release of the Fiscal Year 2023 Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault In The Military.

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“While it’s impossible for us to know exactly why we’re seeing this decrease in sexual assault prevalence, we are cautiously optimistic that the department’s unprecedented investment is having an impact, particularly when it comes to our focus on prevention and building a healthy climate,” Foster said. “But I want to be really clear, we have a lot more work to do.” 

The Pentagon report also found that troop reporting rates of sexual assault incidents were on the rise with almost one in four troops making official reports in 2023. In total, the DOD received 8,515 reports in fiscal year 2023, which Galbreath said was the third-highest number of reports on record.

Officials also calculated how risk factors like sexual harassment, psychological climate for harassment, gender discrimination, and leader and unit support for intervention influenced the likelihood that service members experience sexual assault. By “decreasing those factors, we can decrease the likelihood of sexual assault,” said Andra Tharp, senior advisor for Integrated Primary Prevention.

For example, the DOD report found that women who reported sexual harassment were 12 times as likely to also report unwanted sexual contact. The pattern was even “more pronounced” for men as 40 times more likely to report assault, Tharp said.

“These findings underscore the central role of climate in either increasing or decreasing the likelihood of harmful behaviors like sexual assault,” she added. “This is one reason that creating a healthy climate is the foundation of the integrative prevention work that the department has been undertaking.” 

Officials highlighted several changes that the DOD is hoping will positively impact the military’s climate on sexual assault prevention and reporting. In 2022, the DOD issued a policy that shifted oversight of the command climate assessment process to its sexual assault prevention workforce and officials are increasing their “analytic capability” to identify clear indicators of sexual assault at local levels and harmful behaviors while increasing visibility and enabling leaders to take action on troop reports more quickly, Tharp said. 

The Pentagon is also moving towards a more professional, independent sexual assault response workforce, Foster said.

“We know there have been instances in which our service members haven’t trusted the people, the victim advocates that they need to track to take care of them because they’ve been aligned with command,” she added.

A similar concept was used with the new Offices of Special Trial Counsel, which stood up at the beginning of 2023. The offices were designed to change decision-making authorities on how to legally proceed with criminal cases from commanders to independent lawyers, in an effort to remove conflicts of interest between troops and their command.

Inspector General report

Earlier in the week, the DOD Inspector General released a report on the expedited transfer policy which allows service members who report sexual assault to request a new assignment.

The idea of the Expedited Transfer Program, according to Galbreath, is to help victims recover from the traumatic experience and “improve their recovery so that they could get out of an environment where they felt uncomfortable and moved to an environment where they might experience greater support.” 

This way, troops can continue their work without fears of ostracism or retaliation in their new environment. 

Under DOD policy, transfers should take place within 30 calendar days from the date they’re approved. However, the IG found the military services processed around 52% of cases within the timeframe. A couple of cases highlighted by the IG included troops whose transfers took 108 and 110 calendar days – meaning they were working with their alleged perpetrators for months longer than the policy calls for.

The IG’s findings prompted investigators to recommend that the Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness clarify service requirements regarding the 30-day rule.

Galbreath said they agreed with most of the IG’s recommendations except for the 30-day policy emphasis. He told reporters Thursday that it “doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a weakness in the system” because the DOD’s current policy focuses on giving victims more choices.

“Sometimes 30 days might be too short for a victim to be able to move and so our policy allows that greater flexibility,” he said.

The IG found 338 cases in fiscal year 2023 alone where the services didn’t adhere to the timeframe. The IG emphasized the need for timely transfers to avoid adding to the military branches’ struggles to keep and attract new troops.

“Failure to transfer victims of sexual assault in a timely manner can undermine service members’ trust in their leadership following an assault, which can adversely affect the service’s ability to retain its force,” according to the IG report. “Failure to do so can contribute to the DOD’s recruiting and retention challenges.”

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