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Why Pentagon's progress against sexual assault is so slow

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A Pentagon study released in April shows the nature of the challenge facing the military. It found that nearly 3,200 people reported being sexually assaulted in 2011. Of these cases, some 2,400 could be prosecuted because they were "unrestricted" – meaning the victims came forward and agreed to proceed with a court case. These cases resulted in 191 convictions. Punishments for the convicts included jail time (78 percent), a reduction in rank (82 percent), fines (68 percent), and discharges or dismissal (64 percent).

It is a history of prosecution that has not improved considerably since the issue of sexual assault came to public consciousness during the infamous Tailhook scandal in 1991, critics charge. At a Las Vegas convention of the Tailhook Association, which supports naval aviation, hundreds of sailors, many of whom had been drinking alcohol, lined hotel hallways and groped and assaulted women in what became known as the "gauntlet."

In all, 87 women came forward saying that they had been assaulted.

Ultimately, efforts to prosecute offenders in the Tailhook scandal were deemed a half-hearted failure by the Pentagon's inspector general at the time. According to an internal report, Rear Adm. Duvall Williams Jr. – who spearheaded the investigation – told the assistant secretary of the Navy that "a lot of the female Navy pilots are go-go dancers, topless dancers, or hookers."

He also observed that a female officer who had come forward with a complaint had used profanity in describing her assault. "Any women who would use the F-word on a regular basis would welcome this type of activity," he reportedly said.

Today, failure to prosecute some prominent sexual-assault cases is a key reason many victims never come forward to report the crime.

The Pentagon's annual report on sexual assault estimated that only 14 percent of the 19,000 service members estimated to have experienced assault during the course of one year actually came forward.

According to one survey, one quarter said they did not report the crime because they "did not trust the reporting process."

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