The Defense Department remains focused on restoring service members’ trust as military justice reforms aimed at strengthening the department’s response to sexual assault take root across the services. 

The Offices of Special Trial Counsel, which independently prosecute sexual assault and other serious crimes, reached full operational capability last year.   

The creation of the offices, which shifted prosecutorial discretion for certain serious offenses to independent, specially trained military attorneys, represents the most significant change to the Uniform Code of Military Justice since its creation in 1950. 

But months after reaching the milestone, Caroline Krass, the Pentagon’s chief legal officer, said senior leaders have not lost sight of the imperative to continue repairing the trust that has been shattered by the department’s handling of sexual assault in the past. 

“Some have been demeaned and belittled because of their sex or gender,” Krass said in her prepared remarks. “Others were sexually harassed or sexually assaulted by the very teammates and leaders in whom they had placed trust and confidence. Still others were ignored, disbelieved, or revictimized when they reported what had happened to them. And because of this, many others may not have reported at all. 

“We are working to earn back that trust,” she said. 

Since taking office, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III has made addressing sexual assault a top priority and has taken a series of steps to reduce the prevalence of unwanted sexual contact throughout the ranks. 

In 2021, Austin launched the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military to study the issue and provide recommendations to department leaders on how to reduce instances of unwanted sexual contact.    

As part of the review, experts interviewed hundreds of unit commanders, enlisted service members and survivors of sexual assault.  

“They heard heartbreaking stories and, ultimately, discovered extensive evidence of the betrayal of trust that I’ve described,” Krass said of the review. 

“The IRC found a significant gap — across the department — between what senior leaders think is happening under their commands and what service members actually experience,” she said. “It further found that victims do not trust commanders to do justice in sexual harassment and sexual assault cases.” 

Sexual assault victims often believed that their commanders were more focused on logistics and combat readiness than caring for their troops.  

The review also revealed that service members did not believe that commanders, who have no legal training, could be trusted to handle legal decisions related to sexual assault, such as whether there is probable cause to charge someone for a crime.  

That same year, the commission made a series of recommendations to the department focused on accountability, prevention, climate and culture, and victim care and support. Austin approved the IRC’s core recommendations and directed the department to complete implementation by fiscal year 2030. 

Key among those recommendations are measures that place critical decisions about sexual assault cases in the hands of highly trained prosecutors who are independent from the military chain of command.  

Congress passed a bill enacting reforms related to sexual assault and certain other serious offenses in 2021 and senior leaders across DOD immediately began implementing the changes.  

The Offices of Special Trial Counsel within the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, which covers the Space Force, became operational in December 2023.  

The offices, which report directly to the civilian secretaries of their respective military departments, handle a broad range of crimes including murder, kidnapping and sexual misconduct. The offices will begin covering sexual harassment cases in January 2025. 

Krass emphasized that the changes do not absolve anyone, including commanders and senior leaders, from responsibility for detecting and preventing sexual assault. 

“They must, as the IRC recommended, establish and maintain a command climate of dignity and respect; use thoughtful strategies to prevent sexual harassment and assault; and ensure that victims who bravely come forward are treated with care and compassion,” Krass said. “Prevention is key, as is treating victims with respect.” 

Krass said that the changes to the military justice system are “transformational reforms.” 

“They modernize the military justice system and are a critical first step in making real, substantial progress toward rebuilding trust between service members, their commanders, and the rest of the department,” she said.  

And there are signs that the department’s efforts to implement the IRC’s reforms, including the creation of the Offices of Special Trial Counsel, are having an impact on the prevalence of sexual assault within the ranks.  

The Fiscal Year 2023 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, released by the department last week, revealed that the prevalence of sexual assault in the active-duty force declined compared with levels last measured in 2021, marking the first decrease in nearly a decade.   

Rates of unwanted sexual contact affecting active-component women decreased from 8.4% to 6.8% between 2021 and 2023. Rates of unwanted sexual contact affecting active-component men appeared to also decrease from 1.5% to 1.3% but the change was not statistically significant.  

In total, nearly 7,000 fewer service members experienced sexual assault in 2023 than in 2021, according to DOD estimates.   

“That is 7,000 people that will not have to deal with the scourge of this crime,” said Beth Foster, executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency for the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. 

Foster credited Austin’s departmentwide focus on preventing sexual assault, which she said is beginning to move the trend in the right direction.  

This year’s report is the department’s first assessment of sexual assault prevalence since the implementation of those recommendations began in earnest. 

“The department’s leadership has made this a top priority issue and has been deeply committed to this work,” she said. “And that work is starting to bend the curve.” 

Defense leaders said that while they are encouraged by the report, there is still more work to do to eliminate sexual assault across the department.   

“Last week, I convened the deputy secretary, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the service secretaries and the service chiefs to discuss this report’s findings,” Austin said in a statement accompanying the release of the report. “I made clear that we’re making significant progress, but we must double down on our efforts to end sexual assault and sexual harassment. This remains a key readiness issue across the joint force.”  

“The only acceptable number of instances of sexual assault or sexual harassment in the U.S. military is zero,” he said. “We owe it to all our service members to get this right.” 

In her address last week, Krass further underscored the critical imperative to continue repairing the trust of service members throughout the ranks.  

“Service members trust that their colleagues will have their backs; protect them from harm; and believe them when they say something is wrong,” Krass said. “They trust that their commanders will wield authority fairly. They trust their fellow warfighters with their lives.  

“This bond is core to what it means to serve in the United States military,” she said.

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