Preventing Sexual Violence in the Military

essay

Nov 2, 2021

BriGette McCoy, former specialist in the U.S. Army, testifies before a Senate Committee on Armed Services hearing on sexual assault in the military in March 2013, photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP Images

BriGette McCoy, former specialist in the U.S. Army, testifies before a Senate Committee on Armed Services hearing on sexual assault in the military in March 2013

Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP Images

BriGette McCoy paused to steady her breath. She had spent years hiding the scars of what happened to her in the U.S. Army. Her own family members didn't know about the groping, the leering jokes, the two rapes she survived before she turned 20. But someone had to put a face on the problem, and she had decided that someone was going to be her.

She looked up from her written testimony and fixed her eyes on the U.S. senators seated in front of her. “Sexual assault and trauma have deep and broad roots in the military,” she said.

“Let's not just pluck a few leaves and trim the branch. Let's deal with this from the roots.

“Please make it stop.”

For years now, researchers at RAND have documented the enormous toll that sexual harassment and assault have on the men and women of the U.S. military. In a recent report, they laid out a point-by-point strategy to prevent it, to take it out by the roots. Their main message: The military needs to do more, do it better, and do it now.

“These people are supposed to be your brothers and sisters; we're supposed to have each others' backs,” said McCoy, whose dream of an Army career disintegrated amid the unrelenting abuse she suffered. “If we can't have each others' backs, then that's a national security issue. It makes our nation weaker.”

The Prevalence of Assault and Harassment

In the spring of 2020, a young Army specialist, Vanessa Guillén, disappeared. Her body was found weeks later in a shallow grave outside Fort Hood, in Texas. Her killing drew national attention to the problem of sexual violence in the military; she had reported harassment twice before her death. Investigators later described a “toxic culture” at Fort Hood, a “definitive lack of leadership.” Several soldiers told the investigators they felt safer in Afghanistan.

Fort Hood was the headline, but it was not the whole story. A 2018 survey of service members found that more than 20,000 had been sexually assaulted in the past year—6.2 percent of all military women, and 0.7 percent of military men. Tens of thousands more had been subjected to sexual harassment. Most never filed an official report, often because they feared retaliation or doubted their report would be taken seriously.

8,000 service members left the military in a 28-month period after they were sexually harassed, over and above usual attrition. 2,000 more left after an assault.

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Research at RAND has shown that almost half of military sexual assaults target lesbian, gay, or bisexual service members. It has identified ships and bases with disproportionate rates of sexual violence—among them, Fort Hood. One recent RAND study calculated that 8,000 service members left the military in a 28-month period after they were sexually harassed, over and above usual attrition. Around 2,000 more left after an assault.

BriGette McCoy had no other options. She ended her Army career in 1991—terrified, she told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, that she would have to continue working with her higher-ranking abuser if she did not. She came home, struggled with homelessness and suicidal thoughts, and fought for years to get help from the VA. She still can't sit in the aisle seat of an airplane because she doesn't want people brushing against her.

“It permeates everything. It's like ink in water,” she says now. “Where I live is an accommodation. What I drive is an accommodation. What I wear is an accommodation. This is what I need to do to make sure that I'm comfortable and that I feel safe.”

Prevention Capabilities Are Wanting

Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III called for immediate action to combat what he described as the “persistent and corrosive” problem of sexual violence in the military. “We've been working at this for a long time in earnest,” he said, “but we haven't gotten it right.” RAND's report, pulling together lessons and strategies from nearly two dozen RAND studies, began as a memo to Austin to help strengthen those efforts.

The military has worked hard in recent years to raise awareness about the problem, researchers noted. But it now needs to take a big step forward, making investments and changing the culture in ways that will prevent it.

“It reminds me of the 1980s, when we were still doing 'Just Say No,' thinking that awareness was going to be enough to stop kids from using drugs,” said Matthew Chinman, a senior behavioral scientist at RAND who codeveloped Getting to Outcomes, a guide to help military bases implement more-effective prevention programs. “Then we learned that you need more robust programs and trainings and staff to make it happen. The military is still in the early stages of figuring out what it's going to take.”

RAND's recommendations look further upstream, at what the military can do to create a safe environment long before investigators and prosecutors are needed.

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There are good prevention programs out there—trainings that walk people through how to intervene or teach them how to foster a protective environment. The military, instead, too often uses PowerPoint presentations to get the message across.

Among the service branches, only the Air Force has full-time professionals overseeing its prevention programs. The rest rotate people in and out, often with little training and little time to make a difference. The military also has no way to track allegations of harassment or misconduct that don't rise to the level of an official complaint, which could help it see patterns before they escalate.

Advocates have pushed the Pentagon for years to improve its handling, and criminal prosecution, of sexual assault and harassment cases, with some success. The Army, for example, plans to create special centers on several bases to bring together victim advocates, investigators, and prosecutors. But RAND's recommendations look further upstream, at what the military can do to create a safe environment long before investigators and prosecutors are needed.

“Military leaders are taking steps, but they really need to think big, to shift from a deterrence mindset to prevention,” said Joie Acosta, a senior behavioral and social scientist who coauthored RAND's recent report on strategies to prevent sexual assault and harassment in the military. “If someone is harassing people, even at a low level, they need to be able to take a look and say, 'This is a pattern of behavior that we need to be concerned about.' They can't wait until that person is in the red zone to intervene.”

Getting at the Roots

The military should hire a full-time workforce of professionals whose sole focus is preventing sexual assault and harassment, researchers concluded. It needs better data, more options for reporting misconduct, and a commitment to set the tone from leaders up and down the chain of command. It needs to focus on what RAND's report describes as “bold action” to finally change the numbers.

BriGette McCoy, chief executive of Women Veteran Social Justice Network, photo courtesy of BriGette McCoy

BriGette McCoy is chief executive of Women Veteran Social Justice Network, an organization she founded to connect and empower fellow women who served

Photo courtesy of BriGette McCoy

A special commission established by Defense Secretary Austin came to some of the same conclusions. Its report, released earlier this year, makes more than 80 recommendations covering everything from military culture to victim care to building a full-time prevention workforce. Its title: Hard Truths and the Duty to Change.

The work continues at RAND as well. Researchers are helping the military develop ways to measure the climate of individual units and commands, a step toward better understanding and addressing risk. They also recently analyzed service member reports of common harassment behaviors, such as sexual jokes and insults, to help tailor prevention efforts.

BriGette McCoy is optimistic—cautiously optimistic, she's quick to clarify—that this time might be different. That's not because of any Pentagon report or promise to change, but because of what she hears from other women in the military. They're organized, they're telling their stories, they're keeping the issue at the forefront of the national conversation.

“Women are moving up the ranks; they're being voted into office,” she said. “And when they get there, they're not just going to cut some leaves and say, oh, we fixed the tree.”

Doug Irving