When Defense Secretary Ash Carter spoke at his former high school a few weeks ago, he said, a female student told him she wanted to join the military, and asked whether she would be safe — from other U.S. troops.
“I was sorry she had to ask that question,” Carter told ROTC students gathered Wednesday at Georgetown University from across Washington, D.C. “We can’t let sexual assault make our all-volunteer force a less attractive path for the next generation.”
Many of his predecessors and current chiefs of staff have similar anecdotes. And despite instability abroad and budgetary unpredictability at home, they say that military sexual assault is one of the biggest issues they have to deal with.
In his first address on the subject since becoming defense secretary, Carter said that today’s challenges make it even more urgent that the military do better at preventing and responding to sexual assault. Essentially, he said, it can’t afford not to.
“As you know, there’s a lot going on in the world…and a lot on my plate as Secretary of Defense. We have challenges in Afghanistan, with ISIL, Russian provocations, cyber attacks. We’re also working to reform how the Pentagon spends money, recover from 14 years of war, and at the same time build the force of the future,” he said. “And we can’t let problems, including the scourge of sexual assault in the ranks, undermine that important work and our vital mission.”
And yet, as Carter acknowledged Wednesday, progress has been slow. Over the last several years, he noted, the Pentagon has implemented more than 100 provisions mandated by Congress, along with its own directives, and that the estimated number of assaults has decreased as reporting of the assaults has increased. But in 2014, at least 18,900 service members — 10,400 men and 8,500 women — experienced “unwanted sexual contact.”
Problems persist: retaliation against victims, controversies stemming from crude traditions. An unofficial Air Force songbook that describes rape recently became part of a lawsuit against the Defense Department that seeks to block military commanders from adjudicating sexual assaults. (Asked about his own stance on removing such cases from the chain of command, Carter dodged, saying it is still being studied.)
According to Pentagon data, 62 percent of the women who reported sexual assault in fiscal 2014 also reported perceiving some form of retaliation. While such retaliation has been made a crime under the military justice system, in December, the head of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, or SAPRO, could not say how many people had been investigated or prosecuted for it. SAPRO’s annual report on military sexual assault is due out in the next several weeks.
“I need you to say ‘enough’…enough to dirty jokes, to excessive drinking, to hazing, to sexual advances, and to any suggestion that coercion is appropriate,” Carter said Wednesday.
Carter’s predecessors, particularly former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, have also argued that recognition of women’s roles in combat and opening further opportunities to them, which in turn will lead to greater female representation in military leadership, will help eradicate sexual assault.
Panetta, who lifted the military’s formal ban on women in combat, ordered a military-wide assessment of the remaining obstacles to full gender integration. Unless a service requests and is granted an exemption, as of next January, all military occupation specialties, or MOS, will be opened to women. As part of this assessment, a group of women are currently participating in the Army’s elite Ranger School for the first time.
Carter said it wasn’t yet clear just how many jobs would ultimately be opened to women. “I think most will, maybe all will. I don’t know,” he said. “And the reason I don’t know is that the services that are working through the practicality of some of the most difficult MOSs … most difficult from the point of view of reconciling traditional, at least, gender roles with combat effectiveness, unit cohesion and those kinds of things.”
“I’m certainly grappling with them with an intention to do the maximum practical,” he continued, “because I think, for way too long, we have underestimated how well we can do.”
But Carter also seemed to suggest that widening the opportunities for female troops could have mixed effects on the problem of sexual assault in the military.
“Obviously, as we get women into more unaccustomed positions, maybe dangerous isolated positions, maybe positions where they are fewer, in relation to the number of men, it opens up opportunities for predators,” he said. But he continued, “I can’t help but believe for many people, they’ll learn better how to conduct themselves, how to interact across gender lines and so forth. And that will contribute to prevention and eventually eradication of sexual assaults.”
Members of the military — especially many of those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan in units with both women and men, and in combat, whether officially or not — have bristled at the suggestion they cannot control themselves or conduct themselves professionally. As Carter acknowledged, the Pentagon has struggled to reverse the damage military sexual assault has done to its reputation—the same that prompted the student to ask him whether it was safe for her to join.