The Defense Department released its fiscal year 2021 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military on Sept 1.
The congressionally mandated report indicates that unhealthy conditions have been on the rise in the military. In 2021, the Department estimates that 8.4 percent of active-duty women and 1.5 percent of active-duty men experienced at least one incident of unwanted sexual contact in the year before the survey was conducted.
“The results are a tragic reminder of the challenges we face and the absolute need for continued leadership engagement,” Elizabeth Foster, executive director of the office of force resiliency, said. “On day one of his taking office, Secretary [of Defense Lloyd J.] Austin [III] prioritized action to improve how the department addresses sexual assault. We are taking unprecedented action to prevent sexual assault and restore the trust of service members in the military justice process.”
Details of the annual report along with the department’s current efforts to support and invest in the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office were announced by Foster along with Dr. Nathan Galbreath, acting director for SAPRO, Dr. Andra Tharp, SAPRO senior prevention advisor, and Ashlea Klahr, director of health and resilience research at DOD’s office of people analytics.
Also, shortly after becoming secretary, Austin established the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military to take an impartial look at the changes required to improve efforts in accountability, prevention, climate and culture and victim care.
Foster noted that all the approved 82 recommendations made by the IRC have or are being implemented wherever possible.
In addition to the annual report release and press briefing, Austin released a memorandum for senior defense leaders, noting that the release of the report, “demonstrates in stark detail that sexual assault and sexual harassment remain persistent and corrosive problems for our service members. The report underscores the importance and urgency of our work.” Austin went on to say, “The unprecedented investments that we are making now and in the forthcoming years are intended to restore the trust of our service members, as well as those considering military service.”
Among the many steps being taken, Austin stated that having the offices of special trial counsel will provide expertise in prosecutorial decisions and restore service member trust in the military justice process.
That office will be fully stood up no later than Dec. 27, 2023, as directed by the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2022.
Further support for service members includes hiring more professionals in the sexual assault response workforce, Austin noted. These include victim advocates and sexual assault response coordinators, who will be given greater independence from the military command structure and expanded skill sets to better support victim recovery, he said.
“Solving this problem requires that the department’s most senior leaders continue to stay laser focused. …Together, we will restore the trust that empowers the U.S. military and our national defense,” Austin said. “We will make continued and sustained progress to bolster warfighter faith in leadership, set the conditions to prevent sexual assault, assist sexual assault and sexual harassment survivors with recovery, and hold alleged offenders appropriately accountable. We will make abundantly clear that sexual violence will not be tolerated within our ranks.”