Overnight Defense: Reports of sexual assaults increase across military | Army defends bringing cadets back for Trump graduation speech

Overnight Defense: Reports of sexual assaults increase across military | Army defends bringing cadets back for Trump graduation speech
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Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: Reports of sexual assaults across the military increased by 3 percent in 2019, according to new statistics released by the Pentagon on Thursday.

The roughly 3 percent hike over 2018 includes assaults that occurred between service members, U.S. civilians and foreign nationals who alleged a sexual assault by a service member, and reports from service members who sought assistance for a sexual assault that occurred prior to military service.

Nate Galbreath, acting director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said the numbers reflect that sexual assault is being reported at a much higher rate, which defense officials have argued is a positive trend as it’s a significantly underreported crime.

‘Cautiously optimistic’: “I’m cautiously optimistic that it’s good news, I just can’t characterize it one way or another,” Galbreath told reporters on Thursday.

Overall, there were 7,825 reports of sexual assaults in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, compared with 7,623 reports in 2018.

More reports, Galbreath pointed out, shows there is greater confidence in the reporting system and more trust in the support for victims.

Unclear data: However, it’s unclear if the increase in 2019 actually represents that victims are more willing to come forward or if sexual assault is a growing problem, as the data does not include a more thorough anonymous survey on sexual assault that is only conducted every other year.

“Addressing sexual assault is really one of the most challenging topics that we face in the military but it’s so critical we get this right. ... We are really aware of the high cost of not succeeding in this,” Galbreath said.

He added that the move to vanquish sexual assault in the ranks is made all the more important by its ties to force readiness and its ability to hinder individuals from joining and remaining in the military.

The numbers: The 3 percent increase was fueled by a 9 percent jump in sexual assault reports in the Air Force — the highest percentage uptick of all the services — with 1,683 reported assaults in 2019 compared with 1,544 in 2018.

The Navy saw an increases of more than 4 percent with 1,774 reported sexual assaults, while the Army went up about 2 percent with 3,219 cases in 2019.

The Marine Corps, meanwhile, was the only military service to have fewer sexual assaults reported compared to 2018, falling nearly 7 percent to 1,149 from 1,228.

Leaders’ response: “Sexual assault is a deliberate fratricide that tears at the fabric of our organization and erodes readiness. We must work hard every day to eliminate it from our ranks,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthyRyan McCarthyTrump appointee endorses Christine Wormuth as Army secretary Overnight Defense: Former Navy secretary reportedly spent .4M on travel | Ex-Pentagon chief Miller to testify on Jan. 6 Capitol attack | Austin to deliver West Point commencement speech Trump's Navy secretary spent over M on travel during pandemic: report MORE and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said in a statement following the report’s release.

The annual report “highlights the need for proactive prevention and effective intervention to ensure the safety of our force, particularly the youngest members of our Army Team,” they added.

But progress happening: Galbreath said he is encouraged by the increase in sexual assault reports, which have steadily gone up since 2006.

He said the Pentagon has sought to stamp out the issue by working to encourage victims to come forward, training young leaders to recognize and curtail such sexual harassment and assault in their units early on and launching a program to discover serial offenders.

The program to catch serial offender, started in August, so far has found five accused repeat attackers by tracking confidential information provided by victims.


ARMY DEFENDS BRINGING CADETS BACK TO CAMPUS FOR GRADUATION FEATURING TRUMP: Army leaders on Thursday defended their decision to bring nearly 1,000 West Point cadets back to campus for a commencement ceremony featuring a speech from President TrumpDonald TrumpFranklin Graham says Trump comeback would 'be a very tough thing to do' Man suspected in wife's disappearance accused of casting her ballot for Trump Stefanik: Cheney is 'looking backwards' MORE, saying the graduates would have had to come back to campus anyway despite the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have to bring the cadets back to West Point to begin the process of the physicals they need to take, all of the clearance procedures, to clear barracks, get their personal items,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told reporters during a Pentagon news briefing. “They have to come back to the academy to begin the process of becoming second lieutenants and to report to their first assignments.”

McCarthy added it will be a “small, safe” ceremony, a celebration he said was “hard earned” by the cadets.

Pressed on why West Point couldn’t hold a virtual ceremony, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville replied, “We can’t telecommute to combat.” 

Commencements curtailed: U.S. Military Academy cadets have been learning remotely since their spring break in March amid the coronavirus crisis. The decision to recall seniors back to campus in New York, the United States’s epicenter for the coronavirus outbreak, for the June 13 graduation ceremony has garnered criticism as a political move to give Trump a platform to speak. 

Trump announced earlier this month he would give the commencement address at West Point in comments made a day before Vice President Pence gave the commencement speech at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.

The Air Force Academy had kept seniors on campus even as it sent underclassmen home. It held a socially distanced commencement ceremony April 18 about a month earlier than originally planned.

The U.S. Naval Academy, meanwhile, has opted to hold a virtual graduation ceremony and has canceled other traditional celebratory milestones.

The ‘safety bubble’ plan: On Thursday, Army officials insisted the returning cadets would be kept safe. West Point Superintendent Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams said the students will be kept in a “safety bubble,” including being screened and tested for the virus at a staging area and being quarantined for 14 days before coming on campus.

“We will do it safely,” Williams said at the Pentagon briefing. “They’ll eat separately, they’ll live separately, and we’ll make sure that they are ready to join our great United States Army.”

Cadets will be grouped into five “cohorts” that will not intermingle with each other, he added.

Potential complications: Williams said he informed New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoSix NY county executives call on Cuomo to update state's mask mandate in line with CDC guidance CDC's about-face on masks appears politically motivated to help a struggling Biden Cuomo accuser blasts governor's 'Trumpian gaslighting' over harassment allegations MORE’s (D) office about the decision to bring seniors back to campus, but did not know if the governor “gave his blessing” for it to happen.

Williams would not directly answer repeated questions about whether cadets who refuse to return will be disciplined.

“We will take each case separately, case by case,” Williams said. “I’m not going to make a blanket statement like that in terms of discipline. I am confident that our cadets will come back and graduate.”



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