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Approximately 20,000 U.S. military members are sexually assaulted annually. But only 7,816 reported those cases, and only in 350 cases were perpetrators charged with a crime. President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin created an independent commission to examine possible solutions and endorsed its findings. Nick Schifrin discusses said findings with commission chair Lynn Rosenthal.
For years, the U.S. military has faced a serious problem with sexual assault and harassment. Past attempts to address this have failed to reduce its prevalence.
Now, after President Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin created an independent commission to examine possible solutions, both have endorsed its findings.
Nick Schifrin talks with the commission's chair, in her first interview since she released the report.
The numbers are staggering.
An estimated 20,000 service members are sexually assaulted every year. But only 7,816 service members report those cases. And in only 350 cases were perpetrators charged with a crime; 64 percent of those who report sexual assaults have faced retaliation for doing so.
The Independent Review Commission, or IRC, made 80 recommendations, including remove military commanders from adjudicating sexual assault cases, better evaluate commanders for the climate they create, and victim advocates should be independent of the chain of command.
Lynn Rosenthal chaired this commission and joins me now. Lynn Rosenthal, welcome to the "NewsHour."
You write that the military has failed America's sons and daughters, and service members know it. What do you mean?
We found that there is this great chasm between what senior leaders say about sexual assault and sexual harassment and what junior leaders — junior enlisted members experience.
So, senior leaders will say that there's no tolerance for sexual assault and sexual harassment, and yet junior enlisted members say that there's quite a lot of tolerance. And, particularly from women, we heard that sexual harassment is just part of daily life for many.
The main recommendation that we have highlighted and others highlighted are the independent prosecutors who you describe need to decide whether to prosecute sexual assault, sexual harassment and domestic violence.
Why do you think they should decide, and not commanders?
We found that, because of this broken trust, that junior enlisted service members do not trust their leaders to handle these problems, they don't trust that there will be accountable for sexual assault, in particular, and that, by moving the technical legal decisions about whether or not to charge a suspect with a crime and then whether or not to send that case to trial, that independent prosecutors are better able to make those decisions, and that we hope to see a restored trust within the military.
For years, as you know, the military brass has resisted that specific change. And, to this day, the service chiefs still make this argument, that to strip a commander of the authority to decide to discipline a sexual assault case actually undermines that commander's ability to command.
The IRC rejects the notion that, by moving legal decisions about prosecution from the command structure, that commanders have no role. It's simply not the case.
Commanders are responsible for the climates they create. They're responsible for working to prevent sexual assault and sexual harassment, and they're responsible for making sure that victims are protected when they come forward to report.
So, the idea that they won't have an interest in solving this problem if they are not making those technical legal decisions, we think, is simply false.
Your recommendations on leadership includes this. You recommend better evaluation and more accountability for leaders.
Why do you think that would create a less toxic climate?
Well, we want to look for leaders who have skills in taking care of their people, which is really a commander's number one job.
And they have to have as great an aptitude for that as they do for other parts of readiness, of other ways of preparing. So they need to see sexual assault and harassment, reducing sexual assault and harassment, as a part of their main effort.
That means that we need to select, develop and evaluate leaders based on their capacity to address these kinds of problems.
On your suggestions regarding victim care, why should the advocates for victims also be separated from the chain of command?
We heard from victim advocates that, when they tried to stand up for victims and address command with victim needs, that they themselves can experience retaliation.
So what we believe is that victim advocates need to report outside of the chain of command of victims and offenders. And 100 percent of victim advocates should be 100 percent on the side of that victim.
And you also describe other deficiencies of personnel, including inexperienced lawyers and investigators. How inexperienced are they, and how can that be fixed?
Well, often, assignments in the military may be a two-year assignment. There are frequent rotations and change of station. And these can happen in the middle of a sexual assault case. So a lawyer, a victim advocate, a special victim's counsel could be reassigned.
And so the victim loses that consistent source of support and care. So that's very inappropriate for victims. But, also, these frequent changes of assignments mean that the lawyers and the special victim's counsel aren't able to build up the kinds of skills and expertise and experience that they need.
So we recommend that the military justice system be professionalized across the board. So we would create career tracks for prosecutors, for defense counsel and for investigators.
Your findings included something very alarming.
Of course, among victims of sexual assault everywhere, there are higher rates of suicidal ideation and even attempts. But among the military sexual assault victims whom you spoke to, you found 100 percent had suicidal thoughts or attempts. Why is that?
And that's because to have the nature of military life. And because of the nature of military life, sexual assault is different than it is in civilian society, even though civilian victims also experience suicidal ideation at higher rates.
But what happens in the military is the 24-hour nature of life makes victims feel trapped.And when policies aren't followed and their cases are not handled and they're not able to either transfer from their units or have their commanders transfer the alleged offender from their unit, and when members of the unit isolate them, choose sides between them and the alleged offender, bully or ostracize them, it feels overwhelming.
And that can result in suicidal ideation.
And finally, just in the last moments that we have, you are independent of the military, even if the president and the secretary of defense wanted you to do this.
Bottom line, do you believe the military is willing and able to make these recommended changes and reestablish that key aspect of trust?
I absolutely believe that this is possible, that, from the top down, from Secretary Austin, from General Milley, from senior leaders at the service level, that there is a commitment to finally getting this right.
Lynn Rosenthal, thank you very much.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
As the deputy senior producer for foreign affairs and defense at the PBS NewsHour, Dan plays a key role in helping oversee and produce the program’s foreign affairs and defense stories. His pieces have broken new ground on an array of military issues, exposing debates simmering outside the public eye.
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