WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is lowering its estimate of the number of people it believes have faced retaliation for making claims of sexual assault, arguing that what might sometimes feel like revenge may actually be an attempt to help.
The decision, following a year of debate, is likely to face some criticism, particularly from sexual assault survivors who faced social snubs, harassment, job transfers or other actions in the emotional aftermath of an attack.
But what victims may see as vengeful behavior is, in some cases, actions that are meant to help the survivor heal or get them away from their alleged attackers, military officials say. In other cases, social backlash, bullying or other negative social media behavior may be difficult to pinpoint or trace, and even harder to legally punish.
"It's not because we don't think that the others didn't have a bad experience, but everybody needs to have an understanding of what is the current state of policy and law to get after some of these experiences," said Nate Galbreath, senior executive adviser for the Pentagon's sexual assault prevention office. "We hope that by helping everybody understand the services that are available, that we can help them sort through what they're experiencing and maybe create some solutions."
In December 2014, a RAND survey initially said that more than 60 percent of sexual assault victims believed they had faced some type of retaliation from commanders or peers. That estimate was reduced to about 57 percent last year after officials concluded that the survey questions may have inadvertently included actions by commanders seeking to protect the victim or other social practices that were not designed to persuade a victim not to press forward with criminal proceedings.
This year, officials say, the retaliation estimate is closer to 38 percent — or nearly 4 in 10 sexual assault victims believe they face some kind of legally punishable retribution for filing their assault complaint. The number, while smaller, is still jarring to officials who say they need to do more education and training to prevent and resolve retaliation problems.
The new estimates come from a smaller survey sample of reservists and some victims who went through the military justice system. The results mirror the larger survey in that about two-thirds of victims believed they experienced retaliation. But slightly more than one-third of the smaller group faced actions that could be considered violations of law or policy.
The lower number weeds out things like transfers designed to get victims out of bad situations. But such moves could be debatable if, for example, victims believe the transfer might stall their career or path to promotion.
In an effort to aid assault victims who face retaliation, Galbreath said the department is beefing up efforts to encourage reporting, to provide better treatment, and to make sure victims understand their options to quickly request a transfer or other remedy.
The new campaign also includes plans to better explain and enforce social media behavior, including details on what on-duty and off-duty activities can be punished and what is considered inappropriate even if it's not illegal.
"We agree that a lot of this that's done on Yik Yak, stuff that's done on Facebook, on Twitter, where people can sneak behind the internet and pop out and really harass people and cause people a lot of grief -- we want to get after that," said Galbreath, adding that the department is putting together new social media guidance.
The guidance, he said, will help service members better understand that when they are on active duty, using a government computer, their freedom of speech may be a bit curtailed and they can't do things on social media that would harass someone or cause them grief.
The changes come as the military continues to struggle to reduce sexual assaults. According to officials, the number of reported sexual assaults in 2015 was largely the same as the previous year, triggering more debate over new ways to get the numbers to go down. There were a bit more than 6,000 reports of sexual assault in 2014,
U.S. officials described the latest totals on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the report ahead of its expected release Thursday.
Noting that the numbers "have plateaued," Adm. John Richardson, the Navy's top officer, said it's time to make midgrade and junior officers and enlisted service members more accountable when they see a bad situation developing. And it starts, he said, with eliminating the concept of bystanders.
"Nobody is a bystander —- we are all in this," Richardson said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Bystander kind of creates a potential haven to make a choice — do I want to get involved or do I not. And there's no choice in our business ... You are not a bystander, you are a full up participant in this and so you've got an obligation to go in and help your shipmate."
Previously, military officials have tried to focus training on the idea that bystanders should get involved. But Richardson said that sailors and other members of the military are trained to immediately get involved, particularly in safety situations. So, preventing sexual assault or stopping it before it happens should be no different, he said.
He said the Navy is working on role-playing scenarios that help service members identify potentially dangerous situations.
"If you learn to recognize those signs and you couple that with an obligation to move in and intervene, then I think that crossing that threshold where I'm obliged to act, it will catch on like a brush fire," Richardson said.