Pentagon struggles to assess, stamp out retaliation in sexual assault cases

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WASHINGTON — It's not against the law or military regulations to choose not to sit with someone in the dining hall or to unfriend them on Facebook, but in the traumatic aftermath of a sexual assault, a victim could interpret those moves as retaliation.

In these days when a tweet or Instagram photo can be wielded as weapons, the Pentagon is struggling to define retaliation and rein in bullying or other behavior that victims perceive as vengeful. At the same time, military leaders are expanding efforts to better train their lower- and midlevel commanders to detect and deal with retaliation, while also insuring that other, more innocent actions are not misinterpreted by assault victims.

On Friday, the Pentagon released a deeper analysis of the sexual assault survey data made public last December. That report acknowledges the difficulties in gathering data about retaliation, including problems with how some of the survey questions may have been misinterpreted and that incidents of retaliation may have been over counted.

It's a thorny problem for the military, in the aftermath of a RAND study that concluded that about 60 percent of sexual assault victims believe they have faced retaliation from commanders or peers. Members of Congress are demanding swift steps to protect whistle-blowers, including sexual assault victims who have been wronged as a result of their reports or complaints.

Pentagon leaders said the survey questions need to reflect what legally constitutes retaliation, which includes taking action to discourage someone from going forward with an assault complaint. But they also acknowledged that often victims believe they are being retaliated against if peers no longer invite them to parties or if they are disciplined for illegal drug or alcohol use in connection with the assault.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter unveiled four new initiatives to focus training more directly on the differences in assaults on men and women and increased efforts to prevent retaliation.

The survey showed that unwanted sexual contact against men usually involves multiple assailants on more than one occasion, happens during work hours at their duty station and is more often described by the victim as hazing or an effort to humiliate them. Incidents described by women are usually after work hours, off the base and often involve alcohol use by either the victim or the perpetrator.

Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, director of the Pentagon's sexual assault prevention program, said the military services are working to get better information about the assaults and retaliation so they can improve training.

Sexual assault is such a heinous crime, Snow said, that a victim may easily interpret any action by a superior -- even a transfer to give the victim time to heal -- as a reprisal.

Last December, the RAND survey estimated that 62 percent of sexual assault victims believed they faced some type of professional retaliation, social ostracism, adverse administrative action or punishment.

But defense and military officials involved in sexual assault response and reporting now say the questions may have inadvertently included innocent 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. RAND has since dropped its estimate, saying that about 57 percent of assault victims believe they faced retaliation.

According to survey data, many of the women said the retaliation came in the form of social backlash from co-workers or other service members.

Snow and Galbreath said the military must understand what exactly that is, and whether they can determine if the social reaction is designed to deter a victim from pursuing legal action -- which would more clearly be retaliation.

Officials also agreed that if victims believed he or she were being targeted or unfairly punished, then those concerns must be addressed. They said commanders need to find ways to detect those problems and stop them, either by taking action against perpetrators or making it known throughout the unit that social ostracism is not acceptable, and by communicating better with victims.

One challenge is to do that without violating the privacy of a victim. Often a lower-level commander may not be aware of a sexual assault case, and could inadvertently discipline someone for failing to show up for duty, when they may have been seeking health care or other assistance.

In other cases, a commander may try to transfer assault victims to get them the help they need, give them time to heal or get them away from a bad situation. But victims may see that as professional retaliation if it stalls their military career or puts them in a less desirable job or location. But officials said commanders need more training so they can better handle those situations.

Last December, the Pentagon reported that there were a bit more than 6,100 victims of reported sexual assaults in 2014, an increase of about 11 percent. And an anonymous survey of service members showed that about 19,000 troops said they were victims of some type of unwanted sexual contact, down from about 26,000 in a 2012 survey.

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