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Sexual misconduct has reached 'crisis' point at U.S. military academies, lawmaker says

Sexual misconduct has reached 'crisis' point at U.S. military academies, lawmaker says
Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Admiral Walter E. Carter Jr. gave remarks last year at the commissioning of the Navy's newest Littoral Combat Ship, the U.S.S. Sioux City. Carter testified before a Congressional subcommittee Wednesday about sexual assaults in military academies. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Sexual misconduct at the nation’s three military academies has accelerated at an alarming rate and become a “crisis,” a U.S. House subcommittee chairwoman said Wednesday at a hearing that included testimony from the Naval Academy’s superintendent.

“I’m putting the academies on notice,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who chairs a House Armed Services subcommittee. “This isn’t a blip, a ‘Me-Too’ bump or some accident. It’s time for us to recognize that this is a crisis, and I intend to watch it like a hawk.”

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Vice Adm. Walter E. Carter Jr., the Naval Academy superintendent, told the panel that “we must do better" and said the Annapolis academy has embarked on a corrective plan.

“We are not where I want us to be, nor where the Navy needs us to be,” Carter said. “The Naval Academy must produce leaders that not only treat others with dignity and respect, but also demand the same of those they lead.”

A Defense Department survey released last month concluded that incidents of unwanted sexual contact jumped nearly 50 percent at the military service academies since a similar survey two years earlier.

The survey estimated 747 cadets and midshipmen experienced such contact or harassment during the 2017-2018 academic year, compared to 507 two years previously. Women were usually the victims.

Rates increased for men and women at the United States Military Academy and for women at the U.S. Air Force Academy, but stayed the same for men and women at the Naval Academy, where some say such incidents are rarely reported.

But witnesses at the hearing of the House Military Personnel Subcommittee said issues persist at all three academies.

At the Naval Academy, for example, 32 percent of women don’t believe senior leadership is making a serious effort to alleviate the problem, said retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, citing survey results. Christensen is president of Protect our Defenders, a national organization working to end sexual assaults in the military.

Based on the survey results, the Defense Department estimated that 254 midshipmen experienced some sort of unwanted sexual contact during the year.

But the Naval Academy received just 32 sexual assault reports in the last academic year — an increase of three reports from the previous year.

“Victims report at their own peril. That is the message being sent,” Speier said. “The number of women attending these academies is only going to grow, and that’s why it’s essential we fix these numbers.”

Carter said he presented the survey’s findings to the “entire brigade” and characterized the response as “one of shock.”

Carter said the Naval Academy strategy includes pre-admission screening of potential midshipmen, a sexual assault prevention program, initiatives to promote responsible alcohol choices and an emphasis on holding perpetrators accountable.

He said many examples of unwanted sexual contact involved alcohol. “I’m not blaming alcohol,” he said, but suggested it was a factor.

The survey is conducted every other year. It used the term “unwanted sexual conduct” to refer to a range of prohibited offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice — from unwanted touching to forced penetration or oral sex.

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The Defense Department says it is trying to reverse the troubling trend.

“The results this year do not reflect the large investment of attention, time and resources dedicated to these problems, including the recent implementation of the [Defense] Secretary’s June 2017 requirement for the [service academies] to develop plans to address sexual harassment and sexual assault,” the report said.

Elizabeth Van Winkle, a Defense Department official who is a psychologist, told the subcommittee that it was “devastating to be sitting here again to deliver this most unwelcome report.”

“I sit before you today frustrated but resolved,” said Van Winkle, executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency for the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.

The department has hired prevention specialists and enhanced reporting procedures, she added.

“If there was a single solution to eliminate sexual assault, we would have done it already,” Van Winkle said.

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