The Defense Department is zeroing in on a problem officials believe continues to keep military sexual assault victims from reporting the crime: real or perceived retaliation from their command or community.
A 2014 study by the RAND Corp. showed 62 percent of sexual assault victims reported some kind of retaliation after making their report, prompting Defense Secretary Ash Carter to order the development of a new strategy to study the problem.
"That was one of the metrics we didn't make progress on," Nate Galbreath, senior executive adviser to the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office, told Military.com.
A cluster of new policies will make it easier for sexual assault and harassment victims to obtain speedy transfer to new commands, allow victims to appeal to a senior officer when they believe their career is threatened by reprisal in their chain of command, and develop better retaliation response policies within each of the service branches.
But the first step will require Pentagon officials to determine what their original data even means. The previous study didn't fully distinguish between real or perceived retaliation and did not ask victims to specify exactly how they had been retaliated against.
Galbreath said new, more granular questions about specific forms of retaliation were now being sent out in surveys to victims who had made an unrestricted report and had seen the military justice process completed with regard to the reported crime. They will also be part of future surveys, allowing officials to distinguish between professional reprisal, social ostracism, and maltreatment, and what aspects of retaliation constitute actionable offenses.
"It gives us a better idea if what they experienced might be a crime or a prima facie allegation or not," he said. "Is it that you're just feeling excluded, or do you think people are doing this because you actually reported a sexual assault and people wanted to react badly?"
Data indicate, he said, that a small percentage of retaliation reports stem from acts of reprisal within a victim's chain of command, and most relate to social pressures and ostracism in a victim's community.
The new strategy also improves data collection regarding retaliation incidents, with quarterly calls between officials tasked with addressing retaliation to exchange data, and updates to the Defense Department's sexual assault incident database to include reports of retaliation.
The new retaliation strategy also includes a policy that will grant fast transfers to new units or commands, not only to sexual assault victims who report retaliation, but also to victims of sexual harassment whenever possible.
Commanders will have 72 hours to respond to such requests, and victims can also appeal to the first flag officer or general officer in their chain of command, who must also give a response within 72 hours, Galbreath said.
Requests for victims of harassment will be addressed under a policy of "reasonable accommodations," said Allison Greene-Sands, deputy chief of staff for the SAPR office.
"Reasonable accommodations is what we're in the process of defining in the implementation planning phase, so we have a range of options available to commanders, of what steps we can take to ensure those folks are comfortable," she said.
The strategy also aims to protect victims from having their career negatively impacted by a decision to file a sexual assault report, Greene-Sands said.
Current policy dictates that those about to be involuntarily separated can appeal to a general or flag officer if they believe the action is because of a sexual assault report. The new strategy extends that right to those who feel that their career will face any kind of negative impact, allowing victims to secure an additional review of their career progression.
"It's somewhat of a monitoring piece at a much higher level," she said.
New policies also extend this retaliation protection to bystanders, first responders and witnesses, as well as to sexual assault victims themselves.
Greene-Sands said Congress had requested protection for bystanders, but the Defense Department opted to expand the protected population to cover others who might be affected due to their role in responding to an incident.
"It's very comprehensive," she said.
For those incidents in which retaliation takes place within the chain of command, Galbreath said the task of addressing whistleblower reprisal incidents will remain with the Defense Department Inspector General.
"We can't cross into what the IG does. What we can do is make sure everybody can understand their options. We can give them support and resources, which is really what we think people need, is to kind of understand what those options are," he said. "When you give folks information, it's like a weight comes off their shoulders."
The Defense Department plans to complete implementation of all of the new policies by this fall.
Speaking at a Pentagon ceremony to honor sexual assault response coordinators Thursday afternoon, Carter said he was proud that the Defense Department had recognized retaliation as another dimension of the fight against sexual assault.
"Wherever sexual assault occurs, on the front lines or here at home, it undercuts our ability to carry out our mission," he said.