The Illinois National Guard had 17 reported sexual assaults in 2012, a record number that leaders say reflects increased efforts to encourage victims to come forward and the work that still needs to be done nationwide to change the attitude toward sexual violence in the military.
The numbers represent a 55 percent increase in reported attacks over the previous year and more than double those reported in 2008 and 2009. There have been eight cases reported this year, a guard spokesman said.
The newly released statistics come as the Obama administration and Congress have expressed frustration with the Pentagon's efforts to curb sexual assaults. Results of an anonymous survey published by the Department of Defense last month estimated 26,000 people in the armed forces endured unwanted sexual contact — ranging from rape to groping — last year, compared with 19,000 in 2010.
Still, there were 3,374 reported sexual assaults against service members in fiscal 2012, according to the Pentagon. This marked an increase from 3,192 reports in fiscal 2011, but it still underscored the discrepancy between incidents and reports that continues to exist in the military.
Illinois National Guard leaders and victim advocates view the increasing numbers reported here as a sign that more service members are willing to come forward with their allegations. They believe the jump suggests a slight shift in a military culture that long has discouraged victims from speaking out and often led lower-level commanders to ignore sexual assault reports.
"We're not sticking our heads in the sand," said Maj. Brad Leighton, spokesman for the Illinois National Guard. "We haven't done an admirable job in some cases, and we're going to improve."
For example, there were no reported sexual assaults in 2005 and 2006 among the state's 13,000 guard members. But no one suggests that means none occurred during that two-year span.
In the past seven years, the Illinois National Guard has added 126 victim advocates and nearly quadrupled the number of sexual assault response advocates, who oversee prevention and assistance programs. The result has been a near annual increase in the number of reported sexual attacks involving guard members.
"The bad news is that the numbers are going up, but the good news is that the rising numbers are giving us accurate information so we can get help to the troops," said Brig. Gen. Daniel Krumrei, who leads the Illinois National Guard. "We want to take care of our soldiers and to do that we need to report."
Krumrei, who assumed the state's top military post in December, brings a unique perspective to the issue as he is one of the 22 Illinois guard members certified to serve as sexual assault response advocates. An ordained minister from Springfield, he received the training in 2009 while serving in the chaplain corps.
Krumrei described the difficulties that come with counseling National Guard victims, who struggle against the stigma of sexual assault both in the military and in society. In addition to worrying about their military careers, Krumrei said, the victims also grapple with the knowledge that their attacker was a fellow service member, someone they're supposed to entrust with their lives on the battlefield.
"In any sexual assault, there is a very high human cost to the dignity of people," Krumrei said. "And there is a particular betrayal here because these are your brothers and sisters in arms. ... It's incredibly injurious to mission effectiveness, to unit cohesion, to good order and discipline."
As the first actively serving chaplain to be appointed adjutant general, Krumrei acknowledges the governor chose him for the post partially because of his one-on-one experience counseling service members and their families. And it's why personal issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideation and sexual trauma have been the focus of his first six months in office.
In May, for example, Krumrei ordered all sexual assault reports be sent to his chiefs of staff in an effort to prevent cases from languishing at the lower command level. The directive sends the report further up the command chain than Pentagon policy mandates.
Two months earlier, he reiterated a policy requiring that all accusations be forwarded within 24 hours of when they were reported. The protocol reminder was sent in a letter emailed to every guard member and read aloud to units during training, officials said.
"We need people to understand reporting sexual trauma is an act of personal courage, which is an Army value, and that it's not going to destroy your career," Krumrei said. "We have moved beyond blaming the victim."
Krumrei also said he receives weekly briefings regarding ongoing cases, including any developments in administrative reviews or criminal investigations. He intends to publicize the practice, so his troops realize how important the issue is to him personally.
"I want my soldiers to understand that these allegations are heard, they're responded to, they're investigated, and there are consequences," Krumrei said. "I want my units to know that the command is responsive and involved."
Krumrei's new policies also include releasing sexual assault data that has never been made public, including the outcomes of the 64 reports filed since 2005. According to guard statistics, 37 of those cases have been closed and 27 remain under investigation.
Of the closed cases, 16 of the accused assailants were Illinois National Guard members. Six were discharged from the military, one died during the investigation and one is incarcerated at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas because the incident occurred while he was on active duty.
Five allegations were declared unfounded, and three were not investigated at the victims' request, according to the guard.
Krumrei said he released the information to show his commitment to addressing reported sex crimes.
"I think a little sunshine is a good thing," he said.
Victim advocates suggest the general's attitude toward reported sexual assaults can inspire more change than new policies or protocols.
"If you have a command culture that's intolerant of sexual assault or sexual harassment of any kind, it will have a dramatic impact," said Sharmili Majmudar, executive director of Chicago-based Rape Victim Advocates.
While the new approach could benefit current service members, military leaders acknowledge problems persist for veterans. Studies show 1 in every 5 women who still use Veterans Affairs services screen positive for military sexual trauma, which includes sexual assault and harassment.
The Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs has instituted a series of programs aimed at helping veterans deal with sexual trauma, including the expansion of outreach efforts and better coordination of counseling programs. It also has sponsored across the state screenings of "The Invisible War," the 2012 documentary that scrutinizes the military's handling of rape reports and is credited with sparking public interest in the issue.
"It's sadly very easy to find women who have had these experiences," department director Erica Borggren said. "There have been very encouraging changes in tone, policy and leadership on this issue. But, in the meantime, we have a really large problem in the female veteran community and one that we work day in and day out to help address."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun