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Military sexual assault may happen in the shadows, but Hawaii can be a shadowy place.
Service members have been raped at Kailua barbecues, in Honolulu alleyways, and at bars in Kona and Wahiawa. One attack took place in a parked car in Waikiki. They’ve been sexually assaulted aboard ships in Pearl Harbor, in government buildings, and in grassy parks on military bases.
A decade of military records, obtained by Civil Beat through a series of open-records requests, details hundreds of sex crimes against male and female service members in Hawaii.
In addition to noting the troubling number and circumstances of such attacks, the records suggest that the underreporting of such assaults continues in all military branches in the state.
In that way, Hawaii is little different from the nation as a whole.
The military faces intense scrutiny as the scope of the sexual assault problems within its ranks has become more widely known.
Some people might interpret a relatively low number of reported assaults in Hawaii as a sign that things aren’t so bad, but military officials suggest that the attacks are not being recorded.
“This is a historically underreported crime,” said Lt. Col. Cathy Wilkinson, a Defense Department spokeswoman. “We know that some victims are never ever going to tell anyone what happened to them.”
Rep. Colleen Hanabusa offered her interpretation of the problem in an interview with Civil Beat. “It’s seems pretty clear that there’s almost a culture of not reporting,” she said. “That has to be overcome.”
So the military isn’t just tracking the actual reports of such crimes, it is using comprehensive anonymous surveys to estimate the real prevalence of military sexual assaults.
From the latest such survey, released last year, the Defense Department extrapolates that 26,000 service members were sexually assaulted in 2012. That’s far more than the 3,374 sexual assaults that service members reported that year. 6.1 percent of women who responded said they experienced unwanted sexual contact; 1.2 percent of men who participated in the survey said they experienced unwanted sexual contact.
In Hawaii, there have been 1,072 reports of sexual assault in the past decade, which means an average of about 119 annually, although year-to-year numbers vary widely, in part because people sometimes wait to report crimes against them.
That’s an average of 119 attacks per year for a population of about 46,000 service members, not including the Coast Guard. That represents a significantly lower rate of sexual assault than the Pentagon estimates for the military as a whole, but it’s comparable with the national reporting rate for such attacks in the military.
Hawaii’s numbers suggest the state is largely in line with the national underreporting gap.
The Coast Guard failed to comply with Civil Beat’s repeated Freedom of Information Act requests beginning in early December 2013, so Hawaii figures reflect sexual assault data from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines.
According to documents obtained by Civil Beat, the Army — which represents the largest military population in Hawaii — recorded 629 sexual assaults between mid-2005 and 2014. The Navy and Marines recorded 377 sexual assaults in that time, and the Air Force recorded 66 sexual assaults.
Most victims of sexual assault in the military are men. The Defense Department says that of the 26,000 service members who reported unwanted sexual contact in 2012, 14,000 were men and 12,000 were women. Since there are far fewer women in the military than men, women are more likely to be attacked, even though there are more male victims.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have spent months debating the best way to improve the handling of military sex assault cases. One high-profile proposal was the Military Justice Improvement Act, a Senate bill introduced by New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand that failed to advance in the U.S. Senate earlier this month amid questions about how it might disrupt the chain of command.
Both of Hawaii’s senators supported that measure, while both of the state’s congresswomen supported a companion bill put forth in the House. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard introduced the House version.
Gabbard, who is a military police captain in the Hawaii Army National Guard, has been outspoken in supporting the legislation.
The bill would have removed the commander from the prosecutorial process, a step that its supporters say would encourage more reporting among service members who have expressed concern that a commander’s role in responding to a report of a sexual assault raises an array of obstacles to their cases and their careers.
The Pentagon emphasizes that victims can already anonymously report what happened to them through “restricted” reporting. For instance, of the 629 alleged assaults recorded by the Army in Hawaii since 2005, 58 were restricted reports, which means the victim can seek help but the perpetrator will not be investigated or prosecuted. Victims can change their minds and file an unrestricted report any time after an initial restricted report. Unrestricted reporting enables an investigation. But in order to move forward with an investigation, current law requires that a commander be notified.
This question about the chain of command has been a sticking point in the debate over how to curb military sex assaults. The Pentagon has spoken out against broader attempts to remove such investigations from the chain of command, including the bills that were supported unanimously by the Hawaii congressional delegation.
Wilkinson says commanders have to be involved so that they can be sure the victim is getting the help he or she needs, and that the investigation is moving forward through the proper channels. “You don’t have to talk to your commander about it, but your commander has to ensure that the system is working,” she said in an interview.
For members of Hawaii’s delegation in Congress, anonymous reporting that doesn’t entail prosecution isn’t good enough. “It’s true that those avenues are there, but we’re also talking about prosecution,” Gabbard told Civil Beat. “Someone who makes a restricted report, they’re not interested in prosecuting… And in building strong cases to prosecute, a commander is not trained in the areas that a military prosecutor is.”
A follow-up statement that Wilkinson provided to Civil Beat offers one of the Defense Department’s core arguments: “Commanders are responsible for setting and enforcing standards. They lead by example. We need to have commanders more involved, not less involved, in this process.”
Others have made the case that leaving prosecutions up to lawyers alone could result in fewer prosecutions.
But there’s also a clear sense of anxiety among victims about who will find out what happened to them. In the Defense Department’s most recent Workplace and Gender Relations Survey, most women said they had not reported the sexual assault — or assaults — they experienced. And 70 percent of those non-reporters said they didn’t want anyone to know what happened and that they felt uncomfortable making a report. The same percentage of women expressed similar sentiments in earlier surveys in 2006 and 2010. It is clear that most victims lack confidence in the system.
Men are even more likely to keep quiet about the sexual assaults they suffer. Among women, 67 percent of those who said they were assaulted said in an anonymous survey that they didn’t tell anyone. Among men, 81 percent of those attacked said they kept quiet. The survey shows that many men worry that no one will believe them or they fear punishment for secondary infractions like underage drinking. Others said they had heard about negative experiences from people who did report assaults.
Gabbard says the “consistent thread” she’s heard among victims is that they want reporting of sexual assault to be taken out of the chain of command.
“I’ve seen, really, a lack of faith in the judicial process which stops people from reporting,” Gabbard said in an interview. “There’s a concern about retaliation, a concern about, ‘I don’t know if they’ll believe me; it’s my word against his. And if they don’t believe me, then I’ve exposed myself and now I am going to have to work with this person for the foreseeable future.’ Even for those who are in command and have the best of intentions, there is, in my view, a potential inherent bias that can occur, even when you’re not really aware of it.”
The Pentagon insists that things are changing so quickly that many recent improvements to the reporting system are already taking root.
Last year, service members nationwide reported more than 5,000 sexual assaults, an increase of more than 50 percent over 2012.
While the increase is alarming, the Defense Department views it as a sign that people are more comfortable coming forward.
“It’s been a sea change, Wilkinson said. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my time in the military. I’ve been in 18 years… I can’t highlight enough that just looking at the history is not going to give an accurate picture of today.”
For instance, the passage in December of the National Defense Authorization Act — known in military and political circles as the NDAA — makes it harder for commanders to override the military justice system by preventing them from throwing out sexual assault convictions.
The authorization bill also does away with statute of limitations in sex assault cases, requires a civilian review of any refusal to prosecute a case, and mandates dishonorable discharges for those convicted of sexual assault.
Also, all victims get access to a lawyer when they report a sexual assault — even victims who file restricted reports.
The Pentagon’s Wilkinson calls the authorization bill “the most sweeping change to the military justice system since 1968,” saying it entails more than 30 separate provisions related to sexual assault prevention and response in the military.
Last October, the Defense Department implemented a new Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database that Wilkinson says will enable the Pentagon to examine the problem at a more granular state-by-state and base-by-base level.
Last week, another bill aimed at improving the handling of sexual assault in the military passed in the U.S. Senate. Introduced by Democratic Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, the legislation would, among other things, allow victims of sexual assault to make a case for why their perpetrators should be tried in civilian courts rather than within the military. The measure now heads to the House for consideration.
The sort of increase in reports of sexual assaults that the military is experiencing as a result of efforts to get more people to report what they went through, is hardly new. A similar phenomenon took place in the general population as advocacy groups set up abuse hotlines and police became more sensitive to relevant issues starting in the 1980s. If past experience is any indication, the military may find that the shift throws off year-to-year sexual assault comparisons for a time before things level out.
The next military sexual assault survey won’t come out until the spring of 2015. In the meantime, military service members in Hawaii face the same concerns about sexual assault and reporting attacks as members of the military nationwide.
“These are local people,” Gabbard said of service members in Hawaii. “When you look at our Hawaii units, there’s a strong sense of family, there’s a strong sense of making sure we take care of our own. But the same challenges that I observed within our unit are the same challenges I’ve heard from others who have been victims in active-duty units in various parts of the country. What we’ve seen is that in a variety of cultures, services, and settings, you are still seeing the perpetration of these violent crimes.”
The Defense Department has a 24/7 anonymous helpline for victims of sexual assault. You can call 877-995-5247 or click here to go to the website.