NORFOLK, Va. >> The commanding officer of the USS Bataan walked into the wardroom of his amphibious-assault ship where about 200 mostly young sailors were crammed into chairs, along walls and behind the salad bar and wasted no time getting to the point: Sailors don’t let other sailors commit sexual assault.
"It’s a crime and everyone needs to understand that it’s a crime," Capt. Erik Ross said after a third of those in the room raised their hand to say they knew a victim of sexual assault. "You and I need to look ourselves in the mirror. We need to understand that you’re on duty 24/7. Even though you’re out on the town on liberty … it’s your duty to interfere. It’s your duty to intervene. That’s it."
Frustrated by a lack of progress in reducing sexual assaults among sailors, the Navy has put unprecedented attention on the issue this year. High-ranking Navy leaders are likening it to their crusade years ago to stop rampant drug abuse and say it is not only dehumanizing to the victims but also threatens their operational readiness.
Regardless of location, most sexual assaults in the Navy occur after a night of drinking and officials say many of them could be prevented if someone had spoken up sooner to stop that chain of events. The focus is nothing short of an attempt at a significant cultural shift in the Navy, where men and women work in close quarters and often go out drinking together in foreign ports after months at sea.
The Navy receives two to three reports of sexual assault a day and has for several years. While the Navy has long taught the importance of preventing sexual assaults, Navy officials say it hasn’t worked its way deep enough into the command climate to result in significant changes.
In 2011, there were 610 reports of sexual assault. That’s one less than the previous year.
Critics say while it’s a good thing the military is focusing on preventing sexual assaults, they say real change won’t occur until there are more successful prosecutions. The Defense Department has estimated that 86 percent of sexual assaults go unreported, an indication that some are worried about the effect reporting an assault may have on their career as well as their mistrust of the military prosecution system.
"They do say they want to change, but I feel a lot of it is lip service until we see a higher prosecution rate, until we see more rapists sent to prison for rape," said Panayiota Bertzikis, executive director of the Military Rape Crisis Center. "The bottom line is a felony has been committed and they have to start treating it as a felony."
To that end, the Department of Defense recently announced plans for each service to have "special victim unit" capabilities to ensure that specially trained investigators, prosecutors and victim-witness assistance personnel are available to handle sexual assault cases.