Military's Sexual Assault Problem Is A Cultural One On Tuesday, details were revealed about a second military officer accused of sexual offenses, even though he was supposed to be helping to educate people about the danger of sexual assault. The military has developed an elaborate system to deal with continuing waves of assault, and has a plan for dealing with the problem. But getting service members to report the crimes remains a huge challenge because of the unique workplace and chain of command issues. Melissa Block talks to Larry Abramson.

Military's Sexual Assault Problem Is A Cultural One

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The Pentagon has a problem on its hands, a cultural problem. A soldier at Fort Hood, Texas, stands accused of inappropriate sexual behavior. He was assigned to the Army office that tries to prevent sexual assault, and help victims. That news comes not long after the arrest of an officer who ran the Air Force's sexual assault prevention office.

NPR's Larry Abramson joins us now to talk about how widespread the problem is, and how the military plans to deal with it. And Larry, bring us up to date first on this Fort Hood case. Who was the sergeant and what, exactly, is he accused of doing?

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: We don't know his name. The Army isn't releasing that yet. He's accused of assault, and sources told me that he also may have induced one or two of the victims in this case to engage in sex for money. Now, the sergeant, as you mentioned, was supposed to be helping people recover from assault, deal with the trauma of assault and instead, he may have committed one of these assaults himself.

CORNISH: And just what, exactly, does this office of sexual assault prevention - office at a place like Fort Hood, do?

ABRAMSON: Well, it's part of a larger system that's been put in place over the last decade. The central office at the Pentagon is called SAPRO, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, and they advise the secretary of defense on how to deal with what has become an ongoing problem. They also gather statistics such as those that we heard last week, in a report that showed that sexual assault is actually on the increase in the armed forces. They're the ones who gather those numbers. And they also help to put together sexual education materials, educational materials to prevent assault.

Now, in addition to this central office, there is an office on each base that is supposed to prevent and deal with sexual assault, and that one of those - it's at Fort Hood - is where this particular sergeant worked; and they're supposed to actually deliver the services to soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines when they face sexual assault.

CORNISH: But in this situation, I mean, what was going on with the screening here, in terms of the background of the employee?

ABRAMSON: Well, I am told that this particular sergeant was screened - that they ran a background check; nothing showed up. So this could've been his first offense. He's also supposed to have undergone training that would've prevented something like this from happening. But it just wasn't effective in this particular case and apparently, in some other cases.

CORNISH: Now, looking more broadly, is there any evidence that these sexual response offices are actually effective at preventing these crimes?

ABRAMSON: Well, the military is trying to use some techniques that are popular outside of the military. One is known as bystander messaging. And the idea is getting service members to take responsibility so that it's not just the problem of commanders; and get them to stop potential assaults themselves, rather than just turning a blind eye. Here's a military video set in an off-base bar.


ABRAMSON: So the idea is that inappropriate behavior hurts everyone. It can lead to punishment, like a lockdown for everybody; and that these bystanders are supposed to intervene and get this guy out of the bar. Unfortunately, we don't know whether or not these kinds of efforts work. They sound good; they make a lot of sense. But there's no data that shows that it absolutely does work.

Really, the biggest problem that that the military has right now is getting victims to report because there's so much fear that it could have a negative impact on your career, and cause all kinds of potential problems down the road.

CORNISH: Larry, given these recent incidents, is the Pentagon going to re-evaluate these offices?

ABRAMSON: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel says he wants everybody - in all of these offices - to be re-screened and re-certified, so they can go through and basically, get out the bad apples. And he's also set down some concrete measures to measure success. He's telling commanders, they're responsible for the climate on their bases.

But many people say that the only way you're going to change the climate on these bases is to put more people in jail who have committed assault, or at least drum them out of the services. And there's continuing concern that the military just isn't equipped to do that because commanders have to both lead their troops and make sure that people who commit these offenses are prosecuted. And sometimes, that can be a conflict of interest.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Larry Abramson. Larry, thank you.

ABRAMSON: Thank you.

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