A recent Rand report highlighted a key weakness in the military's programs to combat sexual assault in the ranks: Too many victims face retaliation.
The report found that more than a quarter of sexual assault victims say they face social and professional retaliation, especially those who make an official report of the crime. That creates a vicious cycle that leaves more victims with mental health issues and makes victims of sexual assault less likely to stay in uniform.
It also means that perpetrators of sexual assaults get to revictimize their victims, and sometimes get away with the crime because the primary witness is too terrorized to testify.
"To improve the likelihood that victims will choose to engage in response services after an assault, it is critical to understand and then mitigate the professional and social consequences that victims face after an assault, including the risk of retaliation," the report found.
The Pentagon is doing yet another review of its sexual assault efforts with a new task force mandated by the Biden administration. The new leaders are saying the same thing the military has trumpeted for two decades: One sexual assault is too many.
New Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a memorandum to all troops Feb. 26.
"Sexual assault and harassment remain persistent and corrosive problems across the total force," Austin wrote in the memo. "I expect every member of our total force to be part of the solution and leaders — both civilian and military — across the department to take direct accountability to drive meaningful change."
Lynn Rosenthal, who heads the Biden-ordered panel to examine military efforts to combat sexual assault, said she's looking for cultural change rather than policy shifts, something the Pentagon has sought for many years.
"The charge of the independent review commission is to make this broad assessment and then make recommendations to the secretary of defense and ultimately to the president," she said in a Pentagon news conference last month. "These people will be deliberating on those recommendations. I don't expect an in-the-weeds view of 150 policies that should be tweaked around the edges. That is not what we are about. We are about looking at major shifts and big picture items that could really change the culture, improve care for victims, bring about evidence-based prevention and hold offenders accountable."
But what the Rand report reveals is that the military doesn't need more commissions or more lectures during April, which is the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Instead, the military needs real leadership from corporals in the barracks to generals in Washington.
And those leaders must listen to and care for victims, and rain down on anyone who seeks retaliation.
Every level of leadership must clearly understand its role in the fight and every leader needs to do more than talk about taking on sexual assault. Instead, they all must take direct action when they suspect sexual assault and harassment.
Those leaders must shrug off sexual stereotypes that lead to harassment. They must train their troops to spot and stop sexual assault with the same vigor they train in marksmanship and first aid.
Too many years have passed without real change. Too many casualties have been caused by our troops raping comrades. Too many good enlisted troops and officers have curtailed their military journeys because this problem has been allowed to fester.
It's time to stop just studying sexual assault and harassment in the military. It's time to stop rape and retaliation.