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Victim advocates say U.S. military gets an ‘F’ on sexual assault prevention

For a decade, advocates have argued commanders should be removed from deciding the fate of those accused of sexual assault in the U.S. military. But military victim advocates now say they too should be removed from the chain of command. Nick Schifrin talks to four military victim advocates about the widespread and longstanding problem of sexual assault in the military, and possible solutions.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Pentagon has named a new commission that has 90 days to recommend solutions to the longstanding and widespread issue of sexual assault in the military.

    Nick Schifrin speaks to advocates for survivors about some proposed changes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    When service members report a sexual assault, by law, they're assigned a victim advocate.

    And as you will hear from four victim advocates, the new commission must tackle fundamental problems.

    Over the past decade, the number of reported sexual assaults has doubled from 3,327 in 2010 to 7,825 in 2019, but the actual number of sexual assaults, including those not reported, is estimated to be 20,000.

    In a briefing last month obtained by "PBS NewsHour," the Army admitted soldiers are more likely to get raped by someone in the same uniform as you than you are to be shot by the enemy. And if you commit sexual assault within the Army, you're more likely than not able to get away with your crime.

  • Quintin McNair:

    The military is built on trust. If we're at home, and I can't trust you to take care of me then, how can I trust you to take care of me on the battlefield?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Retired Sergeant 1st Class Quinton Mcnair had a 24-year Army career as a drill sergeant, helicopter crew chief and sexual assault response coordinator and victim advocate. He calls the commission announcement a little progress.

  • Quintin McNair:

    It is a good sign that we're continuing to take measures that emphasize the importance of trying to resolve this issue. It's a bad sign that we have to take those measures.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    If you had to grade how the military has done stamping out sexual assault, what grade would be it?

  • Marianne Bustin:

    It would be an absolute F.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Marianne Bustin had a 24-year Navy career. She was a sexual assault and response coordinator in uniform and after retirement as a contractor. She says commanders often care more about their careers than victims.

  • Marianne Bustin:

    If I say, OK, we have had three sexual assaults, five sexual assaults, instead of saying oh, my gosh, let's take care of these victims, what do we need to do, they start looking at it like, oh, is this going to look poorly on me?

    They just don't want to do what needs to be done.

  • Lindsey Knapp:

    Let's say the commander just didn't believe it was sexual assault. They wee like, no, it was consensual. That was consensual sex.

    That report can stop in its tracks right there.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lindsey Knapp was a soldier in the 2000s, then became a victim advocate in 2014. She's now the executive director of the organization Combat Sexual Assault.

    She says commanders who are colonels, one step below brigadier general, are especially prone to cover-ups.

  • Lindsey Knapp:

    Those commanders are more asked to not act in the best interest of their service members. And so that's really — that level of command is where my problem lies.

    When that victim reports, the commander will just say, oh, you know what, that was consensual, because they don't want to have to deal with the fact that somebody who had power and authority over this victim was a rapist.

  • Amy Frank:

    The chain of command made their own determination. They don't get to do that. The — an allegation, regardless of how valid you think it is, has to be, by law, forwarded to law enforcement. They are mandated reporters.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Amy Frank has been a civilian Army victim advocate and program manager since 2013 and founded Never Alone Advocacy. She says the solutions begin with taking away the power that military commanders currently hold over victims advocates and whether to prosecute or punish alleged perpetrators.

  • Amy Frank:

    The sexual assault advocacy program has to be moved away from the chain of command immediately. The special victims counsels and the special sexual assault response coordinators and all of the advocates need to be moved in their own command away from the chain of command, so we can actually have some teeth to hold people accountable, so that, when people don't do the right thing, that we have our own separate entity to deal with them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The changes must begin at the beginning, at boot camp, with better training and a discussion about culture, says McNair.

  • Quintin McNair:

    You have to make the water so toxic for sharks to swim, that they can't attack people.

    Instead of just saying, hey, this is the definition of sexual assault, this is how many days you have to report sexual assault, let's pair that information with an actual real discussion that is generated to attack and to change the culture.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Advocates say that culture change must include respecting victims and their advocates. The recent Army briefing concluded, 66 percent of victims report retaliation or ostracism, most often from their chain of command.

    In 2019, Amy Frank was suspended after saying her commanders were mishandling sexual assault cases. Last year, the Air Force National Guard fired Marianne Bustin. She's currently fighting to get her job back.

  • Marianne Bustin:

    My command brought me up on false allegations, wrongfully terminated me. I brought up sexual harassment at the unit. And they just didn't want to — they didn't want to hear about it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And Lindsey Knapp says she was fired last year after questioning whether her commander was creating barriers to report sexual assault.

  • Lindsey Knapp:

    If it was working, retaliation would be plummeting. But that is not what we are seeing. So what we're seeing is a failure in military leadership, because when folks like me report that our service members are being retaliated against for reporting, they fire us.

    And then what then? That sends a clear message to the unit, do not report your sexual assault because we are coming for you.

  • Amy Frank:

    It's not working. If it was working, we wouldn't be having this conversation. You know, if it was working, I wouldn't have young soldiers having violent sexual assaults with their bones broken and people saying that that was consensual sex.

  • Lynn Rosenthal:

    The most pressing task facing this commission is accountability for those who have committed sexual assault.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On Friday the Pentagon introduced Lynn Rosenthal as the new commission's head. She's a former Obama administration White House adviser on violence against women.

  • Lynn Rosenthal:

    For many, their dreams were shattered by the trauma of sexual violence and sometimes retaliation for coming forward. This must end.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mcnair says, after the abuse he's experienced and witnessed in victims, he doesn't want his daughter to follow in his footsteps.

  • Quinton McNair:

    My daughter is the age now where I joined the military. I have seen the ugliest part of the military. And that's not something I would want to expose my child to.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It's a generations-old problem that now extends across generations.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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