Why Are U.S. Military Academies Seeing Alarming and Historic Increases in Sexual Assaults?

David Bohrer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The United States military has struggled with the scourge of sexual harassment and assault for decades. Despite new programs, new offices, new training, and stand-down days meant to increase awareness and decrease instances of sexually related crimes, the military still wrestles with scandal after scandal.

A recent survey of military academy cadets shows that this activity is increasing and touching our future military leaders before graduating from their respective schools. With military recruitment at an all-time low, tensions heating up in the Pacific region, and the proxy war in Ukraine shaping up to be our next ‘forever war,’ this is unwelcome news to the Pentagon.

Just how bad is it? Let’s just say if you say goodbye to your daughter as she heads out to one of the military academies, she has a high probability of graduating as a victim of sexual assault.

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By the Numbers

You know I love my numbers and data, so let’s look at the latest 2021-2022 school year survey at the three military academies. The three academies, which include the United States Military Academy at West Point (Army), the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis (Navy), and the United States Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs (Air Force), have about 12,700 cadets enrolled.

Of that number, about 9,200 are men, and 3,500 are women. Within those two numbers:

  • 20% of men experienced sexual harassment
  • 63% of women experienced sexual harassment

Of the men and women enrolled at the academies:

  • 4.4% of men experienced unwanted sexual contact 
  • 21.4% of women experienced unwanted sexual contact

Within the number of those who reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact, which ranges from touching to rape, only 155 of the 1,136 reported their assaults to a DOD authority. Overall, two-thirds of female cadets describe experiencing harassment, and one in five complained of unwanted sexual contact.

These numbers mark an 18% increase from the previous year.

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A Concerning Upward Trend

The Office of Force Resilience director, Beth Foster, said of the results that “This year’s report shows a significant increase in sexual assault prevalence at the military service academies.”

Foster explained, “This is the highest sexual assault estimated prevalence for both women and men at the military service academies since the department started measuring this in 2006.”

It seems pretty apparent when analyzing the numbers that the military academies are becoming even less safe for women and men, to be honest, than years prior. Still, the argument could be made that this apparent increase is an illusion – that programs and access have just made cadets more willing to be truthful during these surveys and report instances more than in the past.

However, when the same survey asked if the cadets trusted the military to protect their privacy and treat them with “dignity and respect” after they report an incident, the numbers paint a different picture.

  • 59% of women said ‘yes’ – down from 72% in the 2017-2018 school year
  • 76% of men said ‘yes’ – down from 83% in the 2017-2018 school year

With confidence that their cases would be treated with respect declining and the prevalence of incidents increasing, it’s fair to say that whatever the DOD is doing, or perhaps more appropriately put not doing, is not working. Rose Goldberg, a lawyer who represents veterans, put it simply, “A major failure in trust is at the core of this crisis.”

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Same Song and Dance

Suppose you break the numbers down further for each military academy. In that case, it’s clear that this issue is prevalent in all three schools. For those who have experienced unwanted sexual contact, which as a reminder, can range from touching all the way to rape, the breakout is below:

  • West Point: 18.2% of women / 4.2% of men
  • Naval Academy: 23.1% of women / 4.6% of men
  • Air Force Academy: 22.3% of women / 4.3% of men

Think about that for a second. Almost a quarter of women will experience either unwanted sexual contact ranging from touching or what my generation called groping to rape if they attend the Naval Academy or Air Force Academy. 

So what do the Superintendents of these schools have to say? Vice Admiral Sean Buck of the Naval Academy said, “The current situation is unacceptable and we must improve our culture.”

Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard Clark said, “Those found to have perpetrated sexual harassment and violence under my command will be held accountable.”

Finally, Army Lt. Gen. Steven Gilland echoed, “We take any allegation seriously and investigate appropriately using our dedicated resources.”

These are all great words, but do they actually mean anything?


Speaking of Buzz words

It’s hard to really buy that the Department of Defense takes sexual harassment and assault seriously. Let’s take the case of Air Force Major General William T. Cooley.

Last year I reported on the landmark court-martial of Maj. Gen. Cooley who was found guilty of forcibly kissing a woman. This case was massive news in the defense world as it was the first-ever conviction of an Air Force General in a court-martial. 

So what was the Major General’s punishment? He received a reprimand and forfeiture of over $50,000 of pay over five months. 

With how much the Department of Defense touts a ‘zero tolerance’ policy for sexual harassment and assault, it sure seems they have at least some tolerance for it. Otherwise, this General would’ve, at a minimum, lost some rank and been dismissed. Instead, not only does he retain his rank, but he also gets to continue to serve.

Vice-chair of Protect Our Defenders Josh Connolly hits the nail on the head, “If there’s a toxic climate and there’s no accountability, the problem only gets worse – bystanders don’t do the right thing, people don’t feel they can come forward, and there’s a huge issue of retaliation.” We all thought the death of Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen would enact measurable change in the military justice system for sexual harassment and assault victims.

It would appear that ‘accountability’ is still just a buzzword for the Department of Defense. 

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USAF Retired, Bronze Star recipient, outspoken veteran advocate. Hot mess mom to two monsters and wife to equal parts... More about Kathleen J. Anderson

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