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Sexual Assault Within Military Is On The Rise


The Pentagon today released a report on sexual assault in the military, and the numbers are disturbing. An anonymous survey showed assaults increased in all services and was the highest in the Marine Corps. And about one quarter of all women across the military experience sexual harassment. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan wrote a memo to all the services. He said, quote, "this is unacceptable. We must and will do better."

NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now. Welcome to the studio, Tom.


CORNISH: Let's start with those numbers. What does the report tell us about the prevalence of sexual assault?

BOWMAN: Well, Pentagon officials are calling this a significant increase. Last year, the Pentagon says some 20,000 service members of that - of 13,000 women and 7,500 men experienced some type of sexual assault. But only one third of those filed a report. Now, that 20,000 figure, Audie, is 37 percent higher than two years ago. And most of the assaults, we're told, happen to service members 17 to 24, usually at the hands of a friend or acquaintance. And the majority of these assaults occur at a military facility or onboard a ship.

CORNISH: How does that break down across individual services?

BOWMAN: Well, the Army saw an 18 percent increase in 2018 over 2016. The Navy - 7 percent increase. Air Force - 4 percent increase. But get this, Audie. The Marine Corps - the biggest spike - 23 percent increase.

CORNISH: I want to come back to that in a moment, but what are military leaders saying about this?

BOWMAN: Well, overall they say they're disheartened. They're angry. They have all these training programs going on and more announced today, but it continues to be a problem. One official said responsibility for eliminating this crime from the military lies with leadership - is what they often say. Now, the Marines, as we said, have the highest increase in assaults - 23 percent. And the top Marine officer, General Robert Neller, said in a statement the Marines have to come up with more prevention methods and also must continue, he said, to foster a culture of dignity and respect.

CORNISH: But was there any sense of the reason why the Marines would see such a high increase compared to the other services?

BOWMAN: You know, we don't know for sure, but some are pointing to the fact that the Marines have the smallest percentage of women in the force, roughly 9 percent or so. And that's about half the number of the other services. And they're also the only service that separates men and women in boot camp. So I spoke with retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Kate Germano. She ran the female-only battalion down at Parris Island Recruit Depot. She thinks that separating men and women is not a good idea. And the women recruits, she said, are not required to do the same physical tests as the men. She said that sends the wrong message. Let's listen.

KATE GERMANO: It's very easy to do humanize women Marines and make them the other by saying there is a - less value for them because they don't train the same way; they don't earn the title of Marine the same way as the male recruits do.

BOWMAN: Now, the Marines are considering having men and women train together at boot camp maybe next year. They did have one coed training company this year. It did quite well, the Marines say.

CORNISH: Tom, you've been reporting on this for a long time. What struck you about this report?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, one thing that jumped out, Audie, in the report - it said the odds of experiencing sexual assault were higher in units with a prevalence of sexual harassment or gender discrimination or workplace hostility. So they know which units are having problems. They know which leaders are having problems. So my question is, why aren't they holding these leaders accountable, either counseling them or getting rid of them? You know what? The Pentagon isn't saying.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Tom Bowman
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.