TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – A third of the veterans who receive healthcare from Veterans Affairs facilities say they were victims of sexual assault or harassment when they served.
The military calls the various types of sexual offenses military sexual trauma (MST.) The U.S. Department of Defense has recently stepped up the effort to prevent the problem and convince service members to report allegations.
Navy Veteran Nerissa Prescott said she was sexually assaulted during her stint on active duty and, like other MST victims, she claims she was discouraged from reporting the incident.
“I actually had a female master chief tell me, ‘don’t keep pressing this issue. You’re going to ruin your career, not his,'” Prescott said. “The person who attacked me was discharged from the military. Not charged to my knowledge, not court martialed. It was a quick process to get him out.”
The VA now asks every veteran seen for health care whether they were victims of sexual assault or harassment.
The data shows one in three women and one in 50 men responded “yes.” A third of the alleged victims are men, according to the ongoing survey.
A MST link provided by the VA emphasizes the data is the rate among veterans who use VA health care and “cannot be used to make an estimate of the actual rates of sexual assault and harassment experiences among all individuals serving in the U.S. Military.”
The DOD’s annual report on sexual assault revealed 8,866 cases in fiscal year 2021, up by just over 1,000 from the previous year.
“Twenty percent of service members who indicated experiencing unwanted sexual contact reported their incident to a Department of Defense authority,” the report said.
Prescott and others insist the cases are “very under-reported.”
“I have another female friend that, while we were on active duty, she told me about an incident,” Prescott said. “And she never reported it.”
Rahel Bayar, a former sex crime prosecutor in New York who is now a consultant for preventing workplace abuse, said convincing more alleged victims to step forward is vital.
“At its core, this can’t be a women’s issue,” Bayar said. “This has to be an issue of something that is unsafe, that is violent, that is not acceptable and not okay.”
Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman said Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III ordered a 90-day independent review commission (IRC) on sexual assault in the military in 2021 “to take bold action to address sexual assault and harassment in the force.”
“Our efforts to implement IRC recommendations address improved support, including enhanced skill and independence for victim advocates to assist victim recovery,” Schwegman said. “As well as victim advocates providing concrete actions that commanders can take to support victims.”
Prescott acknowledges she is one of a relative few who have been willing to talk publicly about MST.
“I think I am one of the first of a generation of women that this happened to that are willing to come forward to speak about it and say these things shouldn’t be happening in our service,” Prescott said.
Bayar said the Department of Defense should work on building confidence that a suspect’s rank will not impact an investigation.
“There has to be not only training but also an impactful outcome for that chain of command,” Bayar said. “There’s a fear for people in the military that if I come forward either you will discourage me from saying anything or you won’t believe me.”
Schwegman said the Department of Defense and the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office is committed to prevention and building better systems to stop the “harmful behaviors.”
“We also are using new prevention solutions based on evidence-based solutions to support those who have experienced sexual assault,” Schwegman said. “The new workforce will leverage this science for enduring, positive community change.”