How the Pentagon plans to reverse its 'tragic' sexual assault crisis

The Pentagon has initiated the deployment of a specialized sexual assault prevention force to military bases in the U.S., Europe, and Asia where troops are at the highest risk of experiencing this crime. The Defense Department has been grappling with the pervasive issue of sexual violence within the armed forces, which has deeply affected numerous victims over the years. These specially trained teams have already begun their work at military installations with the worst records of sexual assault.

The goal of these prevention specialists is to collaborate with base personnel in identifying and addressing patterns and behaviors that contribute to sexual violence. According to Andra Tharp, the senior prevention advisor for the Pentagon’s Office of Force Resiliency, the underlying conditions promoting sexual assault may differ from one base to another or even between different naval ships. However, factors like alcohol abuse and toxic leadership tend to be common contributors. 

Notable Army bases prioritized for intervention include Fort Cavazos (formerly Fort Hood) in Texas, Fort Riley in Kansas, and Fort Sill in Oklahoma. Additionally, selected installations in Hawaii and South Korea will also benefit from these prevention efforts, as per the Army's plans. 

In a 2018 report commissioned by the Pentagon and conducted by RAND Corp., it was revealed that young women serving at training bases and female sailors assigned to ships faced the highest risk of sexual assault. Though the report's data was from 2014, many of the risk factors identified continue to persist. This includes the presence of a large number of young, unmarried, low-ranking personnel at major training bases.

A confidential Pentagon survey conducted in 2021 reported approximately 35,900 cases of sexual assault, ranging from groping to rape, among active-duty troops. It should be noted that the survey utilized a new format, making direct statistical comparisons with previous years difficult. Nevertheless, the findings were described by Pentagon officials as "tragic." The survey also revealed a significant decrease in troops' trust in the military system to protect them from sexual assault. In 2021, only 40% of women said they trusted the military to ensure their safety, compared to 69% in 2018.

The implementation of the sexual assault prevention force was a recommendation made by an independent commission tasked with addressing military sexual violence. The current workforce consists of 425 individuals, which is set to expand to 2,000 members by 2028. The Pentagon is actively recruiting veterans, military spouses, and recent graduates of social science programs for these positions. The staff will undergo a credentialing program, which includes training and continuing education to enhance their effectiveness.

While the emphasis on prevention is a step in the right direction, some critics, like Josh Connolly from Protect Our Defenders, express concerns about the timeline for fully staffing the prevention office. Five years is seen as a lengthy period, and there is a need for greater urgency in addressing this issue.  

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