Washington’s costly response
By Michael Doyle and Marisa Taylor / McClatchy -Tribune News Service
WASHINGTON — Under the political gun, the Pentagon has bulked up its anti-rape campaign far more than many people realize. It’s expensive, aggressive and imperfect.
“These cases are among the most difficult to handle because of the many thorny issues involved, like ‘he said, she said’ testimony, alcohol use and misuse of military position, and because they impact the ability of soldiers to live and work together,” noted Lisa Schenck, an associate dean at George Washington University Law School who’s a retired Army colonel and a former senior judge on the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals.
Bureaucratically, the Pentagon undeniably has beefed up.
The budget for the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office leapt from $5 million in fiscal 2005 to more than $23 million in fiscal 2010. Once administered by a civilian with a doctorate in counseling, the office is now overseen by an Air Force major general with a background in security.
Total Defense Department spending on sexual assault prevention and related efforts now exceeds $113 million annually.
“The department has placed particular emphasis over the past few years on reducing the stigma associated with reporting incidents, ensuring commanders receive sufficient training and providing appropriate training and resources to investigators and trial counsel,” Defense Department spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said.
Some training aims to prevent misbehavior in the first place, with classes that have titles such as “Sex Signals” and “Can I Kiss You?”
The training gets mixed reviews.
Numerous service members confided that sexual assault and harassment training “is not taken seriously,” the Government Accountability Office noted in 2008. A 2009 Pentagon sexual assault task force likewise warned that some training, heavy on the PowerPoint, was only “marginally effective.”
And some of it can taint the military justice system.
One drink, service members periodically have been taught, renders a woman incapable of consenting to sex. This lesson is easy to remember and it draws a bright line: better safe than sorry. It’s also legally inaccurate and can be dangerous in a courtroom.
With paperwork, too, the Pentagon is reinforcing its campaign against sexual assault. The Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office’s first annual report, presented in May 2005, covered 10 pages.
By March 2011, the annual report and appendices spanned some 620 pages. It included significant statistical detail and a useful listing of each allegation. It also included ornamentation, such as a photograph of country singer Toby Keith posing with soldiers.
Raw performance sometimes has lagged. Congress directed the Pentagon in October 2008 to complete a comprehensive sexual assault database by January 2010. The Pentagon missed the deadline. Now officials hope to complete the database by August 2012, at an estimated cost of $12 million.
As officials focus attention and galvanize action, their rhetoric can charge ahead of the facts.
In late September, for instance, a California congresswoman took to the floor of the House of Representatives with a frightful tale of military sexual violence.
“Nineteen thousand rapes a year occur in the military,” Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier declared Sept. 22, citing what she called Pentagon estimates.
Speier’s horrific account was the latest in a weekly series she’s delivered all year, spotlighting what she calls the “epidemic of rape and sexual assault in the military.” Equally bad, she says, is military indifference.
“The Department of Defense still testifies that there are 19,000 rapes that occur in the military every year,” Speier said in a House speech on June 15, “and we have done nothing about it.”
Speier was misspeaking; usually her written statements refer to 19,000 “rapes and sexual assaults,” rather than rape alone. Even this, though, can be exaggerated.
By all accounts, rapes are underreported. The intimately violent crime can shame any victim into silence.
Last year, the military received 3,158 reports of sexual assault. Rape accounted for about one-quarter of the total. If only one in five military rapes is reported, as the Pentagon estimates, the annual number would be about 3,900.
The 19,000 number Speier cited was an extrapolation based on a survey of 2 percent of the military. It referred, moreover, to any form of “unwanted sexual touching.” This covered everything from a slap on the bottom to fondling to rape.
Speier, introducing a bill in November to impose a new system for handling military sexual assaults, further declared that “for too long, the military’s response to rape victims has been, ‘Take an aspirin and go to bed.’” The sound bite was vivid, but it referred to a comment allegedly made in 1985 to Navy enlisted woman Terri Odam.
Since Odam’s long-ago experience, part of the military’s increasingly aggressive response involves training specialized personnel. More than 10,000 trained “victims’ advocates” now serve in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force. In addition, more than 500 sexual assault response coordinators serve military installations and units.
The Senate is considering a defense authorization bill that would change, once more, the military law provisions. The prospects for the bill are unknown.