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Report sexual assault in the military? Expect retaliation

Military sexual assault is declining, but more military members are reporting their sexual assaults, a 136-page Pentagon report revealed Thursday.
U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen gather before graduation ceremonies on May 23, 2014 in Annapolis, Md.
U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen gather before graduation ceremonies on May 23, 2014 in Annapolis, Md.

Military sexual assault is declining, but more military members are reporting their sexual assaults, a 136-page Pentagon report revealed Thursday.

“[T]he importance of this upward trend in reporting cannot be overstated,” the military sexual assault report states. “Increased reporting signals not only growing trust of command and confidence in the response system, but serves as the gateway to provide more victims with support and to hold a greater number of offenders appropriately accountable.” 

"That's actually good news," declared Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel of the higher number of reports during a Thursday press conference, noting that one in four women now report their assault -- as opposed to one in 10 in 2012.

While sexual assault for women is down from 6.1% in 2012 to 4.3% in 2014, these are still huge numbers, hovering around 20,000 assaults a year. Just one in four of those assaults is actually reported, investigators found. For men -- a group that still vastly underreports assaults -- the number was largely unchanged, dipping just slightly from 1.2% to 0.9% from 2013 to 2014; while women are more likely to be raped, there's more than a million men in the military, so even a small figure like 0.9% represents nearly ten thousand assaults.

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Furthermore, retaliation against those reports was also found to be a massive—and unmitigated—problem by investigators. In 2012, 62% of victims who reported unwanted sexual contact indicated they’d been retaliated against, socially and professionally.

"It should be a screaming red flag to everyone when 62% of those who say they reported a crime were retaliated against – nearly two-thirds – the exact same number as last year," New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said in a statement to msnbc. She's been a leading advocate of reforming how military sexual assaults are handled. “And let me be clear, an estimate of 20,000 cases of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact a year in our military, or 55 cases a day, is appalling, and remains at 2010 levels. There is no other mission in the world for our military where this much failure would be allowed."

The military has been unable to combat retaliation, the report notes.

“[T]he Department was unable to identify clear progress in the area of perceived victim retaliation. Despite significant efforts by the Department, military victims continue to perceive social and/or professional retaliation,” the report says. “Retaliation, in any form, is unacceptable in the Department of Defense. Addressing this issue will be a top priority moving forward.”

Hagel reiterated that promise in his press conference, saying that victims "need to be embraced and helped, not ostracized."

A total of 41 secretary of defense-directed initiatives over three fiscal years contributed to the Department's progress, the report notes; one of the most successful, according to the report, was the Special Victims Counsel (SVC), a program that trains lawyers to help survivors navigate everything from reporting and prosecution. More than two-thirds of victims used an SVC and an overwhelmingly majority found them to be respectful and helpful, the report notes.

On Thursday, Hagel announced four more, including plans to train commanders, officers and other supervisors how to better prevent sexual assault and handle it when it does occur; there will be special procedures put in place to "engage commanders to prevent retaliation," Hagel said.

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The externally administered report cost the Department 9.2 million dollars, though that number pales in comparison to the almost $872 million the Veterans Affairs Department spent in 2010 to deal with the health impacts of sexual assaults on former military personnel.

Reports of sexual assault jumping 50% between 2012 and 2013 prompted the Department of Justice to begin this president-ordered comprehensive investigation into military sexual assault and to begin examining the entire justice system within the military. It also kicked off a months-long political firestorm over how to deal with the thousands of women and men who are assaulted in the course of serving the country.

Missouri Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill proposed a more moderate overhaul of how sexual assault is handled in the military, giving victims more control over whether the process is handled in civilian or military court and axing “good soldier” defense, which allows perpetrators to use a strong military record as a defense, while Gillibrand has been fighting to get sexual assault reporting removed from the chain of command. McCaskill’s bill passed the Senate earlier this year; Gillibrand’s amendment narrowly failed.