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There is an ongoing problem with sexual assault in the U.S. military which has resulted in a series of scandals that have received extensive media coverage. Incidents which were publicized include the Tailhook scandal in 1991, the Aberdeen scandal in 1996 and the 2003 US Air Force Academy sexual assault scandal. In an attempt to deal with this problem the Defense Department has issued the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Response policy. A provision in the fiscal 2004 National Defense Authorization Act required investigation and reporting regarding sexual harassment and assault at the United States military academies. A report was published in the New York Times magazine in March, 2007 which surveyed women soldiers' experience in the Iraq War showing significant incidence of post traumatic stress syndrome resulting from the combination of combat stress and sexual assault.[1] 15% of female veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who have visited a VA facility have screened positively for military sexual trauma.[2]

Defense Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies report

The Defense Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies issued its report on August 25, 2005 which showed both a continuing problem and efforts to deal with it:[3]

Sexual assault overseas

Sexual assault of female soldiers over seas became such an issue in the beginning of the war in Iraq that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ordered an investigation and held senate hearings over the matter. Over 100 cases were reported within the first eighteen months of the war. Sen. Susan Collins of the Armed Services Committee said “What does it say about us as a people, as a nation, as the foremost military in the world when our women soldiers sometimes have more to fear from their fellow soldiers than from the enemy?” [4] The pentagon has estimated that 80% to 90% of sexual assault cases go unreported. [5] The fear of the repercussions and embarrassment that could likely follow a report is enough to keep the silence.

Task force charter

The Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies was established on September 23, 2004, pursuant to Section 526 of Public Law 108-136, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004. Congress directed the Task Force to assess and make recommendations concerning how the Departments of the Army and the Navy may more effectively address sexual harassment and assault at the United States Military Academy and the United States Naval Academy. The Task Force consists of six members from the four branches of the Armed Forces and six members from the civilian community.

Service academy culture

Historically, sexual harassment and sexual assault have been inadequately addressed at both Academies. Harassment is the more prevalent and corrosive problem, creating an environment in which sexual assault is more likely to occur. Although progress has been made, hostile attitudes and inappropriate actions toward women, and the toleration of these by some cadets and midshipmen, continue to hinder the establishment of a safe and professional environment in which to prepare future military officers. Much of the solution to preventing this behavior rests with cadets and midshipmen themselves. They must understand that the obligation not to engage in or tolerate sexually harassing behavior is a values and leadership issue.

Sexual harassment and assault are fundamentally at odds with the obligation of men and women in uniform to treat all with dignity and respect. Those who seek to be future leaders in the Armed Services are obliged to uphold standards—not only in their own conduct but also in their response to the conduct of others. Cadets and midshipmen who observe harassing behavior and fail to intervene and correct it, in effect, condone that behavior. This tolerance, even if only by a few, of the attitudes demonstrated by offenders, undermines the standards essential to successful leadership development. Accordingly, midshipmen and cadets must assume more responsibility for holding others accountable by intervening, confronting, and correcting each other for failure to live up to the required standards.

The Task Force also found that because female service members are a minority, they are excluded from some of the highly regarded combat specialties, and are held to different physical fitness standards. Some in Academy communities do not value women as highly as men. Accordingly, the Task Force recommends: 1) Increase the number and visibility of female officers and Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) in key positions to serve as role models for both male and female cadets and midshipmen. 2) Increase the percentage of women cadets and midshipmen at the Academies within current service operational constraints. 3) Ensure consistent opportunities for women to be involved in leadership and Academy decision making, e.g. academic boards and admission boards.

The Task Force concludes the leadership, staff, faculty, cadets and midshipmen must model behaviors that reflect and positively convey the value of women in the military. In addition we recommend the Academies use modern survey and management tools on a permanent basis to provide information to oversight bodies.

Key findings and recommendations


Confidentiality is a complicated matter with numerous implications for both victims and commanders, as evidenced by the extended debate within the Department of Defense prior to the approval of the new confidentiality policy. Confidentiality, as used in this report, refers to the privileged communications between victims of sexual assault and specified care providers and counselors. Confidentiality supports the provision of timely and meaningful assistance to victims following a sexual assault. Privileged communication, however, is an issue of extreme importance for commanders, not just victims.

Commanders have principal responsibility for ensuring appropriate care of victims, as well as for investigating and holding accountable those who have committed the related misconduct. In our view, commanders can do neither effectively without a privileged reporting and counseling channel in place. The requirement that military medical facilities report cases of sexual assault is but one example of the problems associated with a lack of confidentiality under current military regulations.

This requirement may inhibit a victim from seeking necessary medical care and lessen the likelihood the victim will report the assault. Accordingly, the Task Force recommends: Congress should create a statutory privilege protecting communications made by victims of sexual assault to health care providers and victim advocates.This privilege should extend to both medical and mental health care providers and to those victim advocates designated and trained to perform that duty in a manner prescribed by DoD regulation.

Victims' rights and support

The Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Defense’s Report on the Service Academy Sexual Assault and Leadership Survey, published in 2005 (presenting data from 2004) stated that the majority of female victims of sexual assault did not report because of fear of disclosure and the resulting perceived ramifications. The Task Force recommends: Further maximize the use of existing and potential avenues for victims’ support and reporting. Maximizing avenues for victims’ support provides more options for disclosure; expands the ability to obtain support and care; and assists in making informed decisions. Based on the guidelines provided in this report, the Academies should establish a plan to implement the new DoD Sexual Assault Response policy and protocol and submit their plan to the Services in accordance with the statute. The Task Force recommends: Provide training to all Academy personnel, to include cadets and midshipmen, on the various reporting resources, the level of confidentiality afforded to each, as well as treatment available to victims. Finally: Ensure victims are informed of and afforded their federally mandated rights.

Offender accountability

At both Academies available records from the past ten years reflect an extended period where alleged offenders were not consistently or effectively held accountable through the criminal justice system. The past two years have witnessed improved efforts and limited success at holding sexual assault offenders accountable through courts-martials. Although the Task Force finds that the current programs are greatly improved, a key obstacle to increasing accountability for rape and sexual assault is that current statutes, though flexible, do not reflect the full spectrum of criminal sexual behaviors encountered at the military service academies and society at large. Therefore, the Task Force recommends that Congress revise the current sexual misconduct statutes to more clearly and comprehensively address the full range of sexual misconduct. Further, to facilitate the pretrial investigative process, the Task Force recommends the amendment of Article 32 of the UCMJ to permit commanders to close the proceedings to protect the privacy of victims and alleged offenders.

Training and education

Although the Academies have expended considerable effort in developing their sexual harassment and assault training and education programs, current format and scheduling undermine their importance and continuity. Programs are poorly designed, over-reliant on cadet and midshipmen instructors, inconveniently scheduled, and ineffective in conveying key concepts. In addition, faculty, staff, and volunteers are inadequately trained on sexual harassment and assault issues. Accordingly, the Task Force recommends that classes addressing sexual harassment and assault be graded, conducted during academic hours, instructed by qualified faculty members, and incorporate a variety of instructional methods. We also recommend the Academies incorporate cadet and midshipmen education on sexual harassment and assault into a mandatory academic graded curriculum that addresses these subjects in a larger context of military leadership and/or ethics. These programs should be integrated into the academic curriculum at various levels and progresses over the course of cadets’ and midshipmen’s four-year career at the Academies. In addition, the Academies need to establish an effective training program for faculty, staff, sponsors, and volunteers who work closely with cadets and midshipmen. All programs must be evaluated and updated on a regular basis.


At both Academies, sexual harassment and assault prevention program execution and management is fragmented and inadequate. In order to change prevailing attitudes and social norms we recommend that the Academies develop an institutional sexual harassment and assault prevention plan that is evaluated and updated annually. In addition, the Task Force found that Tactical Noncommissioned Officers and Senior Enlisted Leaders are underutilized resources in the prevention of sexual harassment and assault. Senior Noncommissioned Officer and Senior Enlisted Leader duties need to be clearly defined and provide for greater direct interaction and involvement with cadets and midshipmen, particularly during evening and weekend hours.

Coordination between military and civilian communities

The insight from years of sexual assault reform in the civilian community is that permanent solutions must be community solutions. The Task Force finds that the Academies have limited formal relationships with local law enforcement and victim support agencies. The Task Force recommends the Academies follow the DoD police regarding establishing collaborative relationships with civilian authorities for sexual assault victim support. Where informal relationships are more appropriate, the Academies should endorse and validate these relationships through documentation.


The record of the two Academies, much like the record of the Department of Defense, is one of sporadic and incomplete attempts to eliminate sexual harassment and assault. Both the Naval and the Military Academies have made progress in addressing these issues over the last several years. The Academies need resources and support from the Services, DoD, and Congress to ensure success. The changes in law identified by this Task Force are a step in that direction; good-faith efforts to implement Task Force recommendations, as well as continued surveys and oversight, will keep the Academies moving forward.

See also


  1. "The Women's War" article by Sara Corbett in the New York Times magazine, March 18, 2007
  2. "Female Soldiers Raise Alarm on Sexual Assaults" article by Kimberly Hefling
  3. Report of the Defense Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies
  4. "Sexual Assault in the Military" article written March 9, 2004
  5. "Sexual Assaults on Female Soldiers: Don't Ask, Don't Tell" article written March 8 2010 in Time Magazine

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