Pentagon: Sexual assault cases in the military remain constant

This picture taken 26 December 2011 shows the Pentagon building in Washington, DC.

Story highlights

  • Four in every 1,000 service members will report an act of sexual assault in a given year
  • The Pentagon has committed to addressing one of the obstacles to punishing assault -- retaliation

Washington (CNN)The number of individuals reporting cases of sexual assault in the military dropped slightly in 2015, though the reporting rate stayed the same, according to the Pentagon.

A new Defense Department report released Thursday found that a total of 6,083 reports of sexual assault involving military service members were received during the year, 48 lower than the 6,131 in 2014.
    However, the Pentagon said that while the number of reports has decreased, so has the size of military, meaning that proportionally the rates are the same: Four in every 1,000 service members will report an act of sexual assault in a given year.
    "Eliminating sexual assault remains a top priority for the department," said Maj. Gen. Camille Nichols, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPR), which compiled the report.
    "We must continue to foster a climate of dignity and respect so our servicemen and women feel empowered to take action," she said, and "feel safe reporting a crime."
    The Pentagon has come under increasing pressure in recent years to address the rate of sexual assault in the military. In 2004, the Defense Department created the Care for Victims of Sexual Assault Task Force to address a rise in reports of assault. A need for a more centralized and comprehensive task force lead to the creation of SAPR in 2005.
    Amid the criticism, the Pentagon has committed to addressing one of the obstacles to the reporting and punishing of sexual assault -- retaliation against those who come forward.
    Last week, the Pentagon issued reforms to tackle this problem, the report noted. These include "building strong and supportive systems of investigation" and "providing further support" for victims who come forward.
    Out of the 6,083 reports made in 2015, 4,584 were unrestricted, meaning that an investigation can be launched and victims have access to legal assistance in exchange for waiving their anonymity. Only 413 of those reports resulted in convictions in 2015, and included offenses of fraternization and adultery.
    Experts claim that there are many more victims than those who come forward and are counted in the Pentagon's annual report, in part because of what they characterize as a widespread culture of retaliation toward victims.
    "We found it was common for people to be isolated by their peers but it often went much further than that -- bad work assignments, poor performance reviews, disciplinary action, physical abuse, courts martial and involuntary discharge," said Sara Darehshori, senior counsel for Human Rights Watch's U.S. program.
    Thomas Shockley, 40, is a retired Air Force master sergeant who described being sexually assaulted at the U.S. Air Force Base in Ramstein, Germany, in 2010. He told CNN the retaliation he faced after reporting his abuse was devastating.
    "I was removed from my unit and the sergeant who was there to keep an eye on me would constantly mock me," said Shockley, who contacted Human Rights Watch about his experience. "What's worse is my attacker was able to peer at me in the office where I sat."
    Shockley, who had won numerous awards and described himself as a good airman and a leader amongst his peers, had been removed from duty following his attack and asked to do menial tasks such as pick up cigarette butts and trash from the air base parking lot, he said.
    "I felt abandoned by everybody and honestly, it made me question everything: Was I being a cry baby?" he recalled.
    The Defense Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Shockley's case or the assertion that there are many victims who aren't counted in the report because they fear coming forward and facing retaliation.
    Shockley said that while the Pentagon is implementing measures that on paper should help victims, the military culture is still a problem.
    "The mindset is still that if you report, you will be shunned, pushed aside and no longer part of your unit," he said.