Pentagon Officials Defend Sexual Assault Response, Pledge To Eliminate Problem

As Congress debates the latest National Defense Authorization Act amid rancor over how to best combat the military sexual assault crisis, the Pentagon is wrestling with a growing list of related scandals -- from its military academies to its Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.

Col. Alan R. Metzler, deputy director of SAPRO and an experienced commander in the Middle East and Washington, spoke to The Huffington Post about the challenges faced by his office and the military at large. He promised, "I will not filibuster your questions."

Metzler was joined by Lt. Col. Nate Galbreath, a clinical psychologist and former deputy director of SAPRO, who has been with the office since 2007, when SAPRO had just begun to try to quantify "the depth of the problem." The office was established in 2005. In the interview, Metzler and Galbreath -- accompanied by Defense Department spokeswoman Cynthia Smith -- gave a spirited defense of the Pentagon's record on sexual assault, acknowledged the military's obstacles and pledged to continue the fight.

"This is coming right from the commander in chief. The president has made this a priority," Metzler said. "[SAPRO Director Maj. Gen. Gary] Patton has said what a lot of victims in 'the invisible war' have said: When the military puts its mind to it, we can get it done."

What do you see as the Pentagon's greatest areas of weakness when it comes to combating this issue?

Metzler: When I go out and I talk to leaders, it's very interesting to hear perspectives, and it's very difficult to see the scope of the problem when the reports of 3,000-plus [reported sexual assaults last fiscal year] are diffused over 1.4 million active duty [service members]. Or even if you took the 26,000 [reported and unreported assaults] that we estimate based on our survey and diffused that across hundreds of units separated around the world. It becomes very difficult for people to see the scope of the problem, and so we have got a lot of work to educate senior leaders, to educate our stakeholders, to educate the Congress on what we think the scope of that problem is.

Because as we see it, once you look at the reporting versus the prevalence estimates, there's significant under-reporting. So we need to make sure folks understand that under-reporting is one of our major challenges. The victims are looking at leaders, and they're looking to see how we react to that. ... [Education] at the muddy-boots level is critical, because that's where those first decisions are being made about whether or not to report.

Galbreath: Don't forget -- there is no model for this in the civilian world. There is nobody that is doing this to the level and the extent that the Department of Defense is doing. So we're creating this stuff from scratch. Ultimately what we can tell you is, [then-Defense Secretary Leon] Panetta realized very early on that we need commanders to have the proper tools to be able to do this. It's one thing to have a program, but if you really want anything to work in the Department of Defense, you've got to have the commanders behind it. And you have to educate them on how to do it.

Congress itself and the Pentagon are divided on the recommendation of taking sexual assault cases specifically out of the chain of command and moving them under the discretion of highly trained military prosecutors. What is SAPRO's stance on this recommendation?

Smith: [Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel] has made it clear he has not ruled out any options for improving the military's response to sexual assault. ... The secretary recently appointed an outside advisory board to provide independent counsel on what other changes to the law should be proposed to ensure justice in sexual assault cases. The advisory board has been specifically tasked with looking at legislative initiatives that would modify the current role of commanders in the administration of military justice and the investigation, prosecution and adjudication of adult sexual assault crimes.

What do you see as the main factors contributing to the pervasiveness and persistence of sexual assault in the military?

Metzler: Those are some of the myths that are being perpetuated ... We participated in the National [Intimate Partner and] Sexual Violence Survey with the Centers for Disease Control, and it's clear that we are on par with civilian society.

Galbreath: Sexual assault is a societal problem ... [The CDC] found the risk of sexual assault is the same whether you're in the military or you're a civilian. The difference though is that as the military, people expect more of us and we hold ourselves to a higher standard. So that's the big challenge in front of us; [it's] in the fact we have to take the folks from the society ... and train them into the idea that the military's the place where everyone is treated with dignity and respect.

Sometimes it's kind of hard to do that, to overcome those influences. For example on your article in [October], the algorithm that decides what kinds of ads and links show up next to your story were basically ads or links that talked about porn stars without makeup, Halle Berry's cleavage and something about the Hooter girls that basically objectify women. ... That kind of underscores the challenge that we have.

It is frustrating for advocates and often victims when the response is that this is a societal problem. There are very specific data points from your own reports that indicate this is part of the structure of the military.

Metzler: We are facing a societal problem that we bring in when we turn over 20 percent of our force every year. And they are right now being bombarded with misogynistic values [in society] ... We understand that an environment that tolerates sexist behavior, sexual coercion, sexual harassment is an environment in which sexual assault occurs.

Galbreath: When our institution puts its mind to it, we can solve it. We got out 20 years in front of civil rights legislation by integrating the armed forces. We repealed "don't ask, don't tell," we set core standards, and it went over without a blip. We've gotten rid of drug and alcohol abuse in the armed forces. And we're absolutely committed to this type of culture change and we're moving in that direction ... I would put the values and the discipline and the characters of every military member up against any institution in America.

You are saying that it is simply a reflection of the cultural issue in society and not a cultural issue in the military specifically?

Metzler: We reject that we have a culture of the things that you described; in fact, it's just the opposite. What we do is we have some people that don't meet those standards. And if they don't fully subscribe to the values we teach, then when they are not deterred by the certainty of prosecution and the [Uniform Code of Military Justice] and the laws and the discipline that we have on the books, then we detect them and then we will take appropriate action.

When you look at roughly 200 cases [sent to courts martial] out of some 3,000 sexual assaults reported [in SAPRO's most recent annual report], I think that's where the public perception comes that perhaps these cases aren't being pursued with the appropriate level of aggression.

Galbreath: Once we get down to the nitty-gritty, like you say, of the 1,714 military subjects [accused] that were, number one, under our legal authority and, two, that we had evidence of the crime, or at least evidence for a commander to review for adjudication, we referred 35 percent of those to court martial this last year. ... That's the entry point into the military legal system. If you look at a similar point in the civilian research, it's sparse, but civilian research indicates that only 14 to 18 percent of cases of reported sexual assaults ever make it inside a courtroom ... The point is that we're actually prosecuting at a higher rate if we do this drilldown, but nobody wants to hear that.

Recently, there have been several high-profile cases in which a SAPRO official has been accused of improprieties, even assault. How is it that these people arrested on sexual assault charges were ever put in charge of sexual assault prevention programs in the first place?

Metzler: Recent cases show we have a problem of sexual assault at all levels in the military. We will employ our military justice system to ensure due process and to hold offenders appropriately accountable. The department is committed to ensuring we have the right leaders in these critical positions.

Metzler listed several methods by which the Defense Department reviews and trains SAPRO officials (read more in the fact sheet below).

Over nearly a decade, SAPRO has implemented a number of programs and prompted several reforms in its policy to address sexual assault, to what some say is little marked progress. What is your response to that criticism?

Galbreath: I think the progress you can measure a lot is in the victims that we assist every year. If you're gonna talk about long-term perspective, then there's nothing better than what we've done to be able to give victims the opportunity to come in and get the care and services that they need in order to put their life back straight from being sexually assaulted. Largely in 2004, we had separate scattered programs that were out there. It was difficult for folks to find a place to report and find the kind of care that they need. And now's there's a sexual response coordinator, victim advocate at almost every installation, ship, wherever, in the world. ...

It's important to understand that we say, "Yes, it's a persistent problem," and that's why we're being so honest and transparent about it, that's why our leadership is stepping up, in an unprecedented way. You cannot argue with the leadership, you cannot argue with the commitment.

The leadership has been talking about commitment to this issue for the past decade. But the numbers don't indicate marked progress. How do you assure a public that needs help understanding this that there will be marked progress?

Galbreath: I would actually take issue with that, because I think there has been marked progress on the numbers. One challenge that we have with our survey data this year was we found that for reserve women, reserve men and active duty men, rates of sexual assault did not increase. The place that we experienced our increase this year was for active duty women. And that's clearly something that we have to work on ...

We're gonna be looking very closely in upcoming years, and you will get to see -- because we're doing this as transparently as possible -- whether or not we're successful … This is a very difficult challenge in order to make relevant to everyone that comes in on active duty, but we're doing our best to do so.

That certain numbers did not increase, rather than actually seeing decreases in these numbers -- is that the measure of progress at this point?

Metzler: Our goal is to eliminate sexual assault in the Department of Defense.

Galbreath: Absolutely.

Read the fact sheet from Metzler on findings from SAPRO's annual report and recent SECDEF initiatives on military sexual assault here.

Several interviews with these Pentagon officials, over the phone and by email, were combined and condensed for length and clarity.

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