The increase in rates of sexual misconduct at the military academies detailed in the Defense Department’s annual report of sexual harassment and violence are “frustrating, disheartening and unacceptable,” the Pentagon’s director of force resiliency said.
Rates of sexual crimes continue to be high, particularly against women, and rates of alcohol abuse by cadets and midshipmen continues to be a concern, Elise P. Van Winkle said.
Navy Rear Adm. Ann M. Burkhardt, the director of DOD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office; Nate Galbreath, SAPRO’s deputy director; and Ashlea M. Klahr, DOD’s director of health and resilience, briefed Pentagon reporters on the department’s report to Congress.
The survey covers the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y,; the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Van Winkle and Burkhardt stressed that addressing sexual harassment and violence at the academies is a leadership problem. Both said solutions require changing the culture at the academies.
“We know it takes time to promote and sustain a culture free from sexual violence,” Van Winkle said. “Our cadets and midshipmen must model the ethical behavior we demand of our future officers. But it is leadership’s responsibility to ensure they have the moral courage to demonstrate this behavior.”
Burkhardt stressed that cadets and midshipmen must promote “a climate of respect, where sexual assault, sexual harassment and other misconduct are not condoned, tolerated or ignored.”
The report noted that the prevalence of unwanted sexual contact increased from the 2016 report, while the rate of cadets and midshipmen choosing to report has remained unchanged.
“Leadership establishes culture,” Burkhardt said. “Leaders enforce standards, and leaders ensure the safety of those entrusted to their care.” The survey shows that cadets and midshipmen have great confidence in senior leaders, but that they have less confidence in their peer leaders, she said. “This is an area we must improve,” the admiral added. “These are our future leaders. We must instill in them the responsibility to intervene and prevent this type of behavior.”
Past initiatives made short-term progress, but that progress could not be sustained. “We are looking at the entire life cycle of our cadets and midshipmen from acceptance into the academies to entrance into the active force,” Van Winkle said.
Alcohol abuse is clearly a factor in sexual harassment and violence. The survey found that 32 percent of men and 15 percent of women had five or more drinks when drinking. Twenty-five percent of women and 28 percent of men said they had memory loss from their binges, Galbreath said.
The overwhelming majority of cadets and midshipmen understand the special trust placed in them and the responsibility they bear to behave honorably to all. The military must get rid of the bad apples that poison the barrel, Van Winkle said.
“We will not waver in our dedication to eliminate sexual assault from our ranks, nor will we back away from this challenge,” she said. “Our commitment is absolute. While we are disheartened that the strategies we have employed have not achieved the results we had intended, we are not deterred.”
The service academies mirror what is happening in the greater American population. The last time there was a comparable survey for colleges, the service academies were doing better than their civilian counterparts, Van Winkle said.