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Combat veteran Sen. Tammy Duckworth on sexual assault in the military

As the U.S. continues to grapple with issues of sexual assault and harassment, the Department of Defense released a report Thursday detailing the extent of the problem within its ranks. The data indicates a rise in the reported number of sexual assaults in the military, with only about a third of victims filing an official report. William Brangham talks to veteran and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    As our society continues to struggle with the issue of sexual harassment and assault, the U.S. armed forces show they are also not immune to these crimes.

    As William Brangham now reports, a new study released by the Department of Defense today shows a troubling rise in assaults.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Amna.

    The study from the Pentagon today says that reports of sexual assault went up by 13 percent last year, but it indicated the problem could still be far worse.

    This rise, of course, comes after numerous efforts by the different military branches to stem these kinds of attacks. The study, which was based on the Pentagon's most recent anonymous survey, indicated that more than 20,000 service members, mostly female, experienced some kind of sexual assault last year.

    The greatest reported increase were assaults against female service members aged 17 to 24, and they were most often attacked by similarly ranked service members.

    Among the branches, the Marine Corps saw the biggest increase, with a 23 percent rise. And, overall, only a third of the alleged victims filed a formal report.

    Joining me now is Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. She is a former lieutenant colonel in the Army, she sits on the Armed Services Committee.

    Senator Duckworth, thank you very much for being here.

    I wonder if you could just give me your initial reaction when you saw these numbers.

  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.:

    Well, my initial reaction is that they showed both a success and failure on the part of the military leadership.

    I think that the numbers reflect the training that the military has been increasing so that more troops can identify what actually is sexual assault. So, I think that their responses to the survey, that increase, that 5,000 increase, actually shows that the troops better understand what is sexual assault.

    What really — so that's a success on the military's side that their educational program is working. What really bothers me, though, is that the percentage who actually reported these sexual assaults to their leadership, to the mechanisms that the military has put into place, remains at a very low 30 percent.

    And that shows that there is still a distrust in the ranks of the military establishment for reporting. And there's a sense perhaps that maybe they don't trust they will get justice, they don't trust that they won't be retaliated against.

    Whatever it is, there's still a problem. So the education piece, I think, is reflected in the increase in numbers showing that, hey, more people understand what sexual assault is, but still the same low percentage are actually reporting it and trying to seek justice. And that is a problem.

  • William Brangham:

    Well, let's talk a little bit about that.

    If a victim of a sexual assault in the armed services feels that they are not going to get justice or, as you say, they're going to get retaliated against, how do we strengthen that system, so that people who are legitimate victims of crimes feel like they will get justice and then actually get justice?

  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.:

    Well, this is where, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and someone who has worked on this issue for a long time, I wonder if it's time for us to really take control.

    The military leaders have been saying time and time again, give us more time. We're going to deal with this. We have put into place more systems, more ways for the victims of sexual assault to be able to report, that we're going to change the culture.

    I think they have partially been successful with changing the culture, in that they have been successful at educating people so that they know what sexual assault is, especially among our younger troops. But they have not been successful in terms of the establishment.

    And perhaps it is time to fully remove the investigation, the criminal justice part out from under the command of the military leadership in that command structure when it comes to sexual crimes.

  • William Brangham:

    I know that's been a subject of great debate amongst the service members.

    And other members of the Senate and the House have said, we can't simply have a victim reporting to her direct supervisor, because that person is often potentially a witness to or part of the culture in which that crime occurred.

    But there's great resistance on the military's part to taking the direct leaders out of that process.

  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.:

    Right, because there are — and, look, I was a military commander. I want control of my unit. And I want the ability to really instill discipline.

    The problem is, the military has put into place many mechanisms, including allowing victims to report through a separate chain, not necessarily their own chain of command. But there's still a problem here, because even though more victims recognize that they were victims of sexual assault and these increase in numbers, not a percentage of those who actually used the system, the new system that's in place, has not increased.

    So we have got to fix that.

  • William Brangham:

    More broadly, I'm curious what your sense is. Do you think that this is — this increased problem of sexual assault, is this a military problem or is this a civilian problem?

    Because, as we were just reporting, a large number of the — of the victims and the perpetrators are very young people. They're coming right out of their homes and cities and lives, and are only in the services for a year or two, maybe just enlisted.

    So is this a civilian issue or is this a military issue?

  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.:

    I think this is a combination of cultural issue. And, remember, I — what I want to make clear is that I don't know that the number of sexual assaults in the military has increased.

    What this report says is that more people who were asked, were you victims of an assault, reported that they were. And I think this is more an educational piece, with — more of them understand what sexual assault is, who maybe two or three years ago would have said, oh, I was drunk and I had sex with someone that I didn't want to have sex with, but I passed out.

    Now, two or three years later, they understand, no, that was sexual assault, you didn't give consent.

    So there — I don't know that the number of — that the increase has been as a result of more sexual assaults in the military. I think it's more that more people understand and are acknowledging that they were victims.

    However, the number who reported through the chain of command that this is a problem still remains very low. So that — this report shows me that there's a lack of confidence in the system for reporting and prosecuting these crimes.

    I — this is — this is important, because what it shows is there's also a systemic issue and a culture issue in our nation with these young people, William, as you're mentioning, that they're coming in.

    And I think that if you had the same kind of education system in college campuses, for example, you would probably see a larger number of people say, hey, I was a sexual assault victim myself, who maybe right now are college freshmen and who wouldn't have recognized the situation they were in.

  • William Brangham:

    I wonder, Senator, how much you think the — if there were more and more women in senior leadership roles in the different branches, would that help address this?

  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.:

    Oh, very much so. And I think you're seeing some of those changes happening now, with more lead women in command positions.

    Especially as women enter into combat fields across the military, you're going to see a real — a better understanding and a better handling of this issue. And I think that — and this is from my own experience, when I was a company commander. I was the only female commissioned officer in my battalion for a long time, for example.

    And I actually had young women from other units come to me who were not in my unit, who said, ma'am, I want to report something to you. You're the only female officer that I know. So I'm going to come to you, because I didn't trust to report or ask for help through my own chain of command.

    So, more women in leadership across the military will help this situation.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Senator Tammy Duckworth, thank you so much for your time.

  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.:

    Thank you.

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