Pentagon Tries to Break Service Academies' 'Continuum of Harm'

Culture of sexual harassment at the service academies troubles Pentagon leaders.

2013 graduating cadets stand in formation at the United States Military Academy at West Point during the 215 commencement ceremony May 25, 2013 in West Point, New York.

The military service academies have until the end of March to submit plans for combatting a troubling trend of sexual assaults, further exasperated by a new Pentagon report that points to a culture of disrespect and harassment among the military's brightest future leaders.

The numbers of reported sexual assaults dropped at West Point and the Air Force Academy and rose slightly at the Naval Academy this past academic year, according to the Department of Defense's "Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies," released Friday. West Point dipped from 15 to 10 last year, the Air Force Academy dropped from 52 to 45 and the Naval Academy rose from 10 to 15.

A vast majority of the incidents were between two cadets or midshipmen, and largely men against women. There was only one instance of alleged sexual assault from a member of the faculty, reported at the Naval Academy.

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But these numbers are inherently skewed for an issue Pentagon leaders consider a crisis.

Increased public discourse may contribute to a sharp rise in willingness to report (which the Air Force Academy touts for its higher overall numbers). Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said Tuesday he predicted a ballooning up of these numbers, which he says partially accounts for the 26,000 reported incidents of sexual assault throughout the military in 2012, a 34 percent rise.

Defense leaders also point to continued fears of retribution from fellow cadets and midshipmen as one of the factors that may shut victims' mouths and keep some of these statistics artificially low.

The military's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, under the leadership of Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow conducted a series of focus groups with students, faculty and staff in the last year. Feedback largely showed a perception that each school is addressing the problem seriously.

"That's good," said Snow, who was only named to his new position in December, at a briefing at the Pentagon with other SAPRO leadership. "Cadets and midshipmen also identified peer pressure as a barrier to reporting. That's not good."

A culture of sexism among those who attend these academies may lead to the assaults themselves. SAPRO's Nate Galbreath, who wrote the report, said Friday there is a strong positive correlation between the experience of sexual harassment and the eventual sexual assault of people in military units.

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"Because these two problems are in the same continuum of harm, getting at that sexual harassment, that crude and sexist behavior is part of the prevention work that goes into sexual assault," he said.

A survey conducted in 2012 showed that between 80 to 90 percent of women in the military experienced crude or offensive behavior, or "typical locker room talk," said Elizabeth Van Winkle, with the Defense Department's Manpower Data Center. She and her staff asked the subsequent focus groups at the academies whether these numbers seemed right.

"In fact, many said they were surprised it's not higher," she said. "This is where we began to see that culture."

The Air Force Academy credits its higher numbers with a more open approach to combatting sexual assault.

"The Air Force reporting climate is very positive, that's what we've heard in numerous visits there," said Air Force Col. Alan Metzler, SAPRO's deputy.

Their sexual assault response coordinator, or SARC, is "very well known throughout the academy," said Galbreath. He recalls asking Air Force cadets if they knew what to do to report a sexual assault. "Almost every single one of them, to a tee, said 'Call 333-SARC.'"

"[Air Force cadets] are more familiar with their SARC," said Van Winkle. "They are more comfortable. She has higher visibility."

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As a result of the findings of this report, the superintendents of each academy have until March 31 to submit a strategic plan for countering sexual assault in line with their service branches, and how they plan to shape the culture at those schools accordingly. They will also study alcohol consumption on- and off-campus, considered a significant contributor to the rise of such assaults.