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National

The Costs Of Sexual Abuse In The Military

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A new study says sexual assault and harassment in the U.S. military is causing troops to leave prematurely. And that is hurting readiness. The authors hope the findings will help military leaders understand that the costs of sex crimes extend well beyond the victims affected. From San Antonio, Texas Public Radio's Carson Frame reports.

CARSON FRAME, BYLINE: When Amber Davila joined the Army in 2011, she planned to stay in for the full 20 or until retirement.

AMBER DAVILA: I used to joke that I was going to eventually become the first female command sergeant major in the army.

FRAME: She took pride in her communications security job. It made her feel like part of a team and a greater good. That all changed when Davila was sexually assaulted by a fellow soldier in Korea. Even though she was terrified of being ostracized, she eventually reported her attacker. He was discharged after a lengthy investigation. But for Davila, the ordeal wasn't over.

DAVILA: You think you're OK, and then, you know, the commander says, you know, horseshoe on me. So everybody kind of moves in. And then suddenly, someone's brushing against me, and I'm right back in that formation in Korea where this man is torturing me. And it just became overwhelming.

FRAME: She spiraled into anxiety and destructive behavior and spent more and more energy trying to appear fine. When it came time to reenlist, she had a panic attack.

DAVILA: And that's when I decided I couldn't do it anymore and that I needed to get out.

FRAME: Davila isn't alone in that decision. According to a new study by the RAND Corporation, sexual assault doubled the odds that a service member would leave the military within 28 months, and about a quarter of troops who were sexually harassed didn't re-up. Andrew Morral is a senior behavioral scientist at RAND and the study's lead author.

ANDREW MORRAL: We all know, I think, that sexual assault and sexual harassment has tremendous costs to the individuals involved in it. But I think less attention has been paid to what the institutional costs are.

FRAME: Morral used Defense Department data to track the careers of a group of service members who reported sexual assault or harassment. Then he used statistical analysis to figure out how their experiences translated to the entire force. Assaults were associated with about 2,000 more people leaving the military than normal. Sexual harassment played a role in the departure of an additional 8,000 service members. Morral hopes these startling figures push the military to fundamentally change its culture.

MORRAL: I hope that they use it to emphasize the importance of leadership promoting a command climate that is not permissive with respect to sexual assault and sexual harassment. And I think it's been hard to get those messages all the way down into the junior enlisted ranks.

FRAME: President Biden recently ordered a 90-day commission to pursue solutions to sexual assault in the military. Lynn Rosenthal, a longtime advocate for survivors of gender violence, heads the commission. She told reporters in February that she'll organize listening sessions with service members, especially survivors. But she added that she's already heard enough to recognize how much they've lost.

LYNN ROSENTHAL: What I'm struck by here, as I listen to stories of military survivors, is what - how much their service meant to them, how their life was about this dream of serving in the military, and this dream was a part of their identity.

DAVILA: There's a great deal of pride that I had in wearing the uniform.

FRAME: Though Amber Davila's been out of the Army since 2015, she says she still feels a lingering grief about her service, especially when talking with friends whose Army careers have taken off.

DAVILA: That could be me, too. And I do. And I miss it. I miss the Army.

FRAME: She misses the potential of what her career could have been.

For NPR News, I'm Carson Frame in San Antonio.

KELLY: And if you or someone else has experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline. It's 1-800-656-HOPE for 24/7 confidential help.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.