WASHINGTON (NNS) -- In remarks kicking off a panel discussion featuring service leaders July 31, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff addressed efforts to eliminate sexual assault in the military.
Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr. spoke at a Navy Heritage Center Military Women Series event.
Though he faces many policy and investment challenges inherent to his job, the vice chairman said, his greatest people concern is the insider threat of sexual assault within the military's ranks. The fallout, according to a recent RAND Corporation report, costs taxpayers some $3.6 billion in victims' medical, legal and mental health services, as it shatters lives and erodes morale.
"We're all dedicated to conquering this challenge," Winnefeld said, reaffirming his confidence that the Defense Department will prevail. "We're capable of looking inward and candidly, addressing where we have come up short, whether it's in a training exercise or ... in addressing a cultural problem."
But getting the facts right is critical to that success, he said, noting that media reports asserting that a survey of service members indicate that 26,000 sexual assaults take place each year in the U.S. military.
"Spoken that way, I think, '26,000 rapes,'" Winnefeld said. "What we're really saying is that we calculate that there may have been 26,000 instances of, or attempts, at unwanted sexual contact."
But the admiral added that though reports cross a broad spectrum -- from rape to some form of groping and other transgressions against men and women -- none of that behavior is acceptable in the military.
He also addressed the misconception that the military simply doesn't prosecute sexual assault and related crimes.
"Of sexual assault reports last year that completed law enforcement investigation, 24 percent were referred to a military court-martial," Winnefeld said. "That compares to only 14 to 18 percent of the sexual assault cases ... prosecuted in civilian jurisdictions, according to the only study we could find on ... those statistics."
Winnefeld said while initiatives to expedite investigations and make reporting easier for victims are yielding results, another enduring myth is that sexual assault victims can report an incident only through their chains of command.
"There are numerous resources available, first and foremost to provide help ... to a victim, and 10 different avenues for a victim to make a report confidentially or openly, both inside or outside the chain of command," the admiral said. If the victim agrees, he added, the case will be forwarded to military criminal investigators outside the chain of command.
Defense Department policy requires commanders in all services at all levels to forward all unrestricted sexual assault allegations to military criminal investigators, the vice chairman noted.
"In the last two years, Army commanders exercised jurisdiction in 49 sexual assault cases that independent local civilian authorities had declined to prosecute," the admiral said, adding that there are 44 similar cases in the other services.
"You find a very high military conviction rate, most often with confinement and also punitive discharge," he said.
Winnefeld said he believes the principal way to combat sexual assault is through deterrence and the message that perpetrators will be caught.
"Had these commanders not acted when an independent authority chose not to," he said, "there would be nearly 100 victims out there who would not have had a chance for justice to be served."
As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel prepares to announce a directive with six new executive actions to combat sexual assault, panelists from all of the services described strides already being taken to stamp out the crime.
The Army's "multi-imperative" approach includes facets of prevention, investigation, command and climate, and accountability, said Maj. Gen. Thomas C. Seamands, the Army's director of military personnel management.
"It's imperative that we hold every individual, every unit, every organization and every commander accountable for their actions, their behavior and their inactions," Seamands said.
Resourcing, he added, will be key. "We are in the process of hiring over 900 victim advocates, sexual assault response coordinators and trainers at brigade and equivalent units," the general said.
The Army also has hired sexual assault investigators and lab examiners to increase capabilities and strengthen prosecution. The service's sexual assault response coordinator and victim advocate certification course programs, he noted, were recognized as DOD best practices.
The Navy has taken an operational and regional approach in its prevention efforts, said Rear Adm. Sean S. Buck, director of the Navy's 21st Century Sailor program.
Awareness, Buck said, is a key component of sexual assault prevention efforts. Two recent pilot programs have focused on fleet concentration areas such as San Diego and the Navy's Great Lakes training center in Illinois, where roving barracks patrols increase the visible presence, and community and civic leader engagement efforts are ongoing.
"We must continue to be good neighbors and partners in our community and reduce incidents of destructive, and sometimes embarrassing, behavior by encouraging our civilian community partners to help us with situational awareness," the admiral explained.
The Navy also has deployed resilience counselors who will provide continuity of care even when a sailor goes to sea.
In tackling one of the more reported instances of military sexual assault, Air Force Maj. Gen. Margaret H. Woodward submitted a command-directed investigation of incidents at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, in August 2012. Woodward's recommendations became a roadmap to changing basic and technical training instructor vetting processes.
But despite what she learned there, Woodward said in last night's discussion, that her recent experience leading the Air Force's sexual assault prevention and response office has given her far greater insight on the complex issue. She now works alongside survivors, and law enforcement and mental health professionals, legal experts and data analysts who help her to better understand the issues and analyze input from airmen.
That input, she said, has originated in large part from the Air Force's sexual assault prevention and response blog. Airmen also have responded favorably to the Air Force's special victims counsel program, an independent initiative that ensures no one in a victim's or alleged perpetrator's chain of command will influence their representation.
"As of [July 12], 369 victims have requested special victim counsel representation," Woodward said. "We've had a three-fold successful conversion rate, meaning that 36 percent of restricted victims with SVCs convert to unrestricted report status [and] we can take their case to investigation and prosecution, compared to just 13 percent before the SVC program."
Similarly, Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Russell A. Sanborn, service member and family program director for his service, said he expects to see an uptick in reporting to about 65 percent, based in part on the Marine Corps' overhaul of its legal response in prosecuting complex sexual assault cases.
"We respond to the victim and the alleged crime," said Sanborn, adding that trial teams are composed of a highly qualified civilian expert, two experienced military prosecutors, a military criminal investigator and a school-trained paralegal administrative officer.
The complex trial team, Sanborn explained, gives the Marine Corps the ability to prosecute cases more effectively.
"[We] recognize the need to sustain and intensify these efforts if the improvements are to be made permanent and the historically high standards of the Corps are to be upheld," he said.
Rear Adm. Daniel A. Neptun, the Coast Guard's assistant commandant for human resources, touted his organization's victim advocate training program, which he said uses interactive, scenario-based training.
Despite its small size, the Coast Guard has received overwhelming response from victim advocate trainees, the admiral said.
"A thousand of anything in our service is a pretty big number," he added. "We're at about 800 right now. We've had phenomenal response from each of those participants on how it equips them to be more responsive to the [victims].
Neptun noted that 90 percent of reported sexual assaults in the Coast Guard involved alcohol use by the accused, the victim, or both. Coast Guard officials want to develop initiatives to combat alcohol abuse as another tool to help prevent sexual assaults, he added.
"We see it almost as a co-dependency. ... We're reviewing our policy for ships at sea or units that deploy, ... all with the focus on reducing sexual assault," Neptun said.