By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON – In a stepped-up effort to address sexual assaults after a 50% increase in reports over one year, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered the military departments to review and revise their alcohol policies to protect potential victims.
In a news conference last month, Hagel explained that the alcohol policies “will be revised where necessary to address risks that alcohol poses to others, including the risks that alcohol is used as a weapon against victims in a predatory way.”
The new directive was one of six announced in conjunction with DoD’s annual sexual assault report. The most recent review showed that sexual assault reports for FY 2013 have increased by 50% over FY 2012 numbers. In FY 2012, DoD reported 3,374 total sexual assault reports, but that number climbed to 5,061 reports in FY 2013.
“We believe victims are growing more confident in our system. Because these crimes are underreported, we took steps to increase reporting, and that’s what we’re seeing,” Hagel explained.
The DoD also announced that some kind of disciplinary action was meted out in 73% of the 2,149 sexual assault cases where the military had jurisdiction in fiscal year 2013.
“Disciplinary actions in cases where the military had jurisdiction reached a high of 73% last year. When commanders took disciplinary action on sexual assault offenses, they moved to court martial a record 71% of alleged perpetrators,” Hagel said.
Hagel said that, during the past year, he has issued 22 separate directives to strengthen how DoD prevents and responds to sexual assault in the military. The new directive to review and revise alcohol policies will include “training of alcohol providers, emphasizing responsible sales practices and engaging local community leadership and organizations to expand efforts off-post,” he explained.
DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office Senior Executive Adviser Nate Galbreath said the initiative is following guidelines suggested by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as those on responsible service of alcoholic beverages.
“This is training providers to understand how people consume alcohol, what its effects are on the body and how to maybe serve people in a way that diminishes those impacts — those effects on the body so that they don’t get intoxicated as quickly,” he said at the news conference.
For example, he said, when a drink is served, a menu also is provided to encourage the patron to eat something to slow the absorption of alcohol into the system. In addition, providers also will look at when they sell drinks.
“Do you really need to sell someone five fifths of bourbon at 2 o’clock in the morning? Probably not,” Galbreath pointed out.
The DoD also is looking at what can be done to make environments safer where alcohol is consumed, so that the risk is reduced for sexual assault and other violent crimes.
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, DoD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office director, said that what changes will actually be made is “yet to be determined,” as the military services look at their policies. An implementation plan and methods for policy changes must be submitted by Nov. 1, 2014.
“So as to whether or not what revisions and the specificity of the revisions, each of the services are committed to looking at this,” Snow said.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers on Capitol Hill continue to call for further reforms of the military justice system.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said in response to the FY 2013 statistics that additional reform is needed to make ensure sexual predators are removed from the military. She said Congress should “act and finally put these cases in the hands of trained legal professionals to fix a system that is failing our brave men and women in uniform.
“More reporting is not the end game. Justice and removing recidivist predators from the military so they cannot commit more crimes to arrest the problem is the end game,” she said.
A bill in which Gillibrand addressed that issue failed to make it out of the Senate in March. Her bill sought to strip military commanders of their power to prosecute sexual assault cases and reassign the convening authority powers for serious crimes to an impartial military prosecutor. DoD senior leadership did not support the measure, which also was controversial among lawmakers.
Last month, the House Armed Services Committee also rejected an amendment to a bill that would have stripped the military command of authority to decide whether to pursue a case related to sexual assaults.
“We continue to make progress, but until the chain of command is stripped of its power to prosecute sexual assault cases the system will remain broken,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), said in a written statement.