Sex assault cases in US military persist during COVID-19 lockdown

Washington: The number of reported US military sexual assault cases stayed at a high level during last year’s COVID-19 lockdown, but did not increase, according a Pentagon report Thursday.

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The annual report by the Defence Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) recorded 7,816 sexual assault complaints in 2020, a slight fall from the record 7,825 of 2019.

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The stabilisation came after years of steady increases, three per cent in 2019 and 13 per cent the previous year.

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In 2020 the Navy and Marine Corps both saw increases while reported assaults fell in the Air Force and Army.

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SAPRO says that reported assaults fall far short of actual assaults, sometimes by 75 per cent, though it would not make such an estimate for last year because of the unknown impact of coronavirus lockdowns and safeguards.

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Nevertheless, it said, “Sexual assault is an underreported crime among both the civilian and military populations.

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“The number of individuals who report the crime to law enforcement falls far short of the number of individuals who have likely experienced the crime.”

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The number of reported rape cases fell in 2020 to 13 per cent of the total from 15 per cent in 2019. Thirty-seven per cent of the cases were aggravated sexual assault, slightly up from the prior year, and 43 per cent were classified as abusive sexual contact, slight lower.

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According to the report, based on investigations carried out last year, 81 per cent of the victims were women and 19 per cent men. As for the perpetrators, 80 per cent were men, five per cent women and 15 per cent unknown or the information was not available for the report.

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Seventy per cent of victims were 24 years old or younger, and three-quarters of both victims and perpetrators were in the low and middle enlisted ranks.

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But a disproportionate number of perpetrators were in the middle and upper enlisted sergeant ranks.

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The report comes as the new Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has ordered an independent commission to propose ways to decrease the level of sexual assault.

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A key early finding, according to reports, is to remove reporting and handling of assault cases from the standard military chain of command.

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“We, the chain of command, we the generals, the colonels, the captains and so on, we have lost the trust and confidence of those subordinates in our ability to deal with sexual assault,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley told reporters last week.

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“So we need to make a change.”

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