In his first directive since taking office, US defense secretary Lloyd Austin has given his senior leaders two weeks to send him reports on sexual assault prevention programs in the military, and an assessment of what has worked and what hasn’t.
Austin’s memo, which went out Saturday, fulfils a commitment made to senators last week during confirmation hearings. Joe Biden’s pick, a retired army general, vowed to immediately address the problems of sexual assault and harassment in the ranks.
“This is a leadership issue,” Austin said in his two-page memo. “We will lead.”
Senator after senator demanded to know what Austin planned to do about the problem. Reports of sexual assaults have steadily gone up since 2006, according to department reports, including a 13% jump in 2018 and a 3% increase in 2019. The 2020 data is not yet available.
The 2018 increase fueled congressional anger and lawmakers have repeatedly called for action, including changes in the Code of Military Justice.
“You do agree that we can’t keep doing the same thing that we’ve been doing for the past decade?” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, said during Austin’s confirmation hearing. “Do I have your commitment to be relentless on this issue until we can end the scourge of sexual violence in the military?”
Austin agreed, telling senators: “This starts with me and you can count on me getting after this on day one.”
Austin arrived at the Pentagon on Friday but spent his first hours in meetings with key leaders. He was in the Pentagon again on Saturday, making calls to counterparts around the world, and he signed the memo.
In his hearing and in the memo, Austin acknowledged that the military has long struggled with the problem, but must do better.
The directive calls for each leader to submit a summary of the sexual assault and harassment measures taken in the last year that show promise, and an assessment of those that do not. And he asked for relevant data for the past decade, including efforts to support victims.
“Include in your report the consideration of novel approaches to any of these areas,” he said, adding that “we must not be afraid to get creative.” Austin said he plans to host a meeting on the matter with senior leaders in the coming days.
Nate Galbreath, acting director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said last April that he was cautiously optimistic that the lower increase in 2019 suggested a trend in declining assaults. But he also said sexual assaults are vastly under-reported.
Galbreath and military leaders have rolled out new programs, including increased education and training and efforts to encourage service members to intervene when they see a bad situation. Last year officials announced a new move to root out serial offenders.
Many victims don’t file criminal reports, which means investigators can’t pursue alleged attackers. Under the new system, victims who don’t want to file a public report are encouraged to confidentially provide details.
Galbreath and others also have contended that the increase in reports was a good sign in that it showed that victims were more willing to come forward.