Most veterans don’t trust the Pentagon to handle sexual assault cases

Matt Saintsing
January 31, 2019 - 11:26 am

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Joe Boggio


Most veterans who served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan say they don’t trust the Defense Department to “effectively address” the issue of military sexual assault, according to most recent membership survey from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America

61 percent said they do not believe the Defense Department is dealing with sexual assault within the ranks, and two-thirds said they were retaliated against following their reporting.

The annual survey collected responses from 4,600 members—their largest survey to date— on several issues impacting veterans, from problems with transitioning back to civilian life and VA care, to name a few. About one in four women veterans and one in 100 male vets experience sexual assault while in uniform, according to the VA. 

Eight percent, or 368, of members surveyed, are survivors of sexual assault in the military, less than one-third of whom reported it to their chain of command. 

Who handles sexual assault cases in the military may shed some light into why so few survivors report it. Just over half of vets said they would have been more likely to report if, instead of their commanders, a trained military prosecutor had the authority to move forward with their cases, against three percent who said they would have been less likely to report; 46 percent said it would not have made a difference. 

Military leaders have long sought to keep the issue of sexual assault and harassment at the forefront. In 2013, multiple scandals raised questions about how the military’s justice system prosecutes these cases, goes after offenders, and protects survivors. 

Army Gen. Martin Dempsy, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, told Congress the military has been lagging behind the issue

Since then, the Pentagon has sought to raise the profile of sexual assault and pledged more resources to fight the epidemic plaguing the military. 

More cases of military sexual assault are being reported, but fewer are referred to courts-martial, because military commanders rely on administrative, not a criminal action, for accused offenders, according to a report last year on sexual assaults in the military.

The Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) said in a statement last April criticizing the drop in courts-martial and overall conviction, despite a steady rise in sexual assault cases between 2016 and 2017. 

“An increase in reporting is only good if it leads to justice,” said Lydia C. Watts, CEO of SWAN. “It hasn’t. Despite the increase in reporting actual convictions from sexual assault have decreased over the last three years.” 

She added that the military is “encouraging victims to come forward, and when they do, it hangs them out to dry.” 

Critics of the way commanders are relied upon to decide which cases are severe enough to go to trial say “inherent bias” comes in to play, according to a 2017 report issued by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). 

But senior Pentagon officials oppose taking commanders out of the decision process. They’ve argued that commanders are critical to maintaining mission readiness, discipline, and good order. 

The survey is quite lengthy and addresses all kinds of issues impacting military veterans, click here to check it out. 

     Want to get more connected to the great stories and resources Connecting Vets has to offer? Click here to sign up for our weekly newsletter.