Watch CBS News

Military's system to combat sexual assault is broken, survivors say: "It's so much bigger than it seems"

Sexual assault survivors on military failures
CBS News investigates: Sexual assault survivors say military failed to protect victims 05:26

Fifteen years ago, the Department of Defense established a program to combat sexual assault and rape in the ranks. Since then, the military has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on prevention efforts with a stated policy of zero tolerance. 

A year-and-a-half-long investigation by "CBS Evening News" anchor and managing editor Norah O'Donnell and the CBS News Investigative Unit into sexual assault within the U.S. military uncovered failures by leaders to address the issue. Over the course of the investigation, CBS News spoke with nearly two dozen survivors of sexual assault, whistleblowers who worked for the military's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program and families of suicide victims who say the military grossly mishandled reports of sexual assault. 

In the military's most recent survey, more than 20,000 service members said they had experienced sexual assault.

Over the course of a year-and-a-half investigation, CBS News spoke to nearly two dozen sexual assault survivors from all branches of the military who say their allegations were brushed aside and they were retaliated against for reporting their assaults.

"We're supposed to feel safe with our brothers and sisters in the military. And they're the ones hurting us," Mei-Ling Jerez told "CBS Evening News" anchor and managing editor Norah O'Donnell.

"If my daughter ever thought about joining the Army, is this the Army that I would feel safe and comfortable with her being a part of?" said fellow soldier Sara Joachimstaler. "I wouldn't want my daughter any part of it."

Jerez said she was raped her first night in her barracks. She reported the assault, but says it wasn't taken seriously. "They said that I was a distraction that came into their platoon."

She was raped a second time a year later, she said. 

"This officer arrived at my home and said he needed to search my home. After I let him in, I was violently raped," she said. "He ensured to tell me, 'I'm a lieutenant and no one's going to believe an E-4 specialist over a lieutenant, and I want you to remember that.' And I didn't report that. Even though I was bleeding, I had bruises — the proof was on my body. And yet I didn't think it was going to be enough."

Joachimstaler said she was sexually assaulted during a training exercise last year by a soldier who outranked her. She was afraid at first to report it. 

"If you're a specialist, and you report a commander or even just a senior sergeant, then it's really just point-blank, like, you don't have the rank to put forth the fight and you're really not kind of 'worth their time' to worry and correct the system as a whole," she said. 

Only one in four service members who are sexually assaulted actually report the crime. Many, like Armando Perez, don't.

"This leader of mine took me under his wing. He groomed me so that he could abuse me," Perez said. "He was also the prevention officer who I would have to report it to."

"So I had to sit there and whenever he would do the presentations for prevention, and just be embarrassed and shamed that he was the person who was doing it to me," he said.

According to the military's data, since 2015, fewer sexual assault cases are being sent to a court-martial and convictions are dropping, despite an increase in reporting.

Shawna Culp said she was raped in 2010. She reported it, but her case didn't make it through the military justice system until this year. By the time it got to a court-martial, her rape kit had been destroyed.

"It was just frustrating because you put up with all this and you try to get something done, and by the time that it finally gets done, it's, like, just close enough," Culp said. 

"And 'just close enough' because at the court-martial, your assailant was acquitted because only five [jurors] said he was guilty. And you needed six?" O'Donnell asked. 

"That was still a majority of the people. So, I feel like everything is set up against you, no matter what," Culp said. 

Survivors told CBS News that what came after the assault was often worse than the assault itself. 

"I faced immediate and consistent retaliation," said Joachimstaler, who was stripped of her rank after reporting her assault. "They were trying to break me down. They just go after you 'cause you're the victim and you're the problem."

Jerez also experienced retaliation and rumors, she said. 

"It got to the point where I didn't just wish that I never reported. I wish that I'd never joined. I wished that I was dead," she said. 

Asked if they think there needs to be something like a #MeToo movement for the military, all four raised their hands. 

"All branches across the board, all of us need to be able to feel like we can speak up and that you're never alone," Culp said. 

"When you compare it to other traumatic events that happen to people, whether it's a shooting or combat, you're experiencing that with other people, so you know visually and physically that you are not alone. When a rape or sexual assault occurs, it's happening to you alone. And when I saw more people reporting it and more people speaking on it, I stopped feeling as alone," Jerez said. "It's this shame that you carry and it's this anger and embarrassment that you carry with yourself, but it's not yours to carry. It belongs to the abuser that did it to you."

Asked what needs to change, Culp said, "It needs to be an independent agency. We should be able to create an entity that — the oversight is not itself."

"They need to stop putting bandaids on this flawed system and start over. Or have somebody outside to police them," Perez said.

"It's so much bigger than it seems. It's not just your story. It's not just your unit or your leadership. It's the whole system," Joachimstaler said.

After a month of asking for an on-camera interview with either the Secretary of Defense or the deputy director of the military's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, the Pentagon declined CBS News' requests and said to reach out to individual service branches for comment. 

In a statement, the Army said they're committed to stopping sexual assault, providing resources and support to victims, and holding offenders accountable.

In a video message, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy on Wednesday said he was concerned about the allegations. "I am deeply saddened and concerned by the recent news reports of how sexual assault and sexual harassment have plagued our force and brought harm to our Soldiers," McCarthy said. "This topic has captivated the attention of America and our Army leaders and it is abundantly clear - we must do better.

"Leaders, regardless of rank, are accountable for what happens in their units and must have the courage to speak up and intervene when they recognize actions that bring harm to our Soldiers and to the integrity of our institution. If we do not have the trust of America - nothing else matters," McCarthy added.

DOD Safe Helpline is a hotline dedicated to members of the DOD community affected by sexual assault. Safe Helpline offers completely anonymous, confidential, 24/7 support available online at or by calling 877-995-5247.

Service members or civilians who were sexually harassed or sexually assaulted by a member of the U.S. military can seek legal services with Protect Our Defenders.

Read statements from four branches of the military below:


"The Army is committed to stopping sexual assault, providing resources and support to victims, and holding offenders accountable.

"Army policy prohibits retaliatory behavior. The Army encourages reporting of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and associated retaliatory behaviors so victims can get the help they need and offenders can be held appropriately accountable.

"Commanders have a wide range of tools at their disposal to hold offenders appropriately accountable. Unlike civilian jurisdictions, retaliatory behaviors by the chain of command are criminalized under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

"The Army is focused on instilling a culture of dignity and respect that fosters healthy command climates in which the behaviors and attitudes that lead to sexual offenses are rare and victims feel free to report without fear of retaliation.

"The Army is reinforcing the importance of recognizing and addressing inappropriate behaviors as early as possible. These behaviors include offensive jokes, hazing, bullying, and other actions that create an environment that's conducive to sexual harassment and sexual assault. 

"The Army published the 'U.S. Army Strategy for the Prevention of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment,' an annex to the Army People Strategy. This annex focuses on Commanders and Leaders, and their role in establishing and maintaining expectations and attitudes to support positive behaviors and healthy relationships.

"We're now in phase three of the DOD Prevention Plan of Action. In support of this effort, we are planning for how to attain milestones and carry out implementation.

"The Army is conducting a comprehensive review of how the SHARP program is organized and staffed to ensure we have the right people, the right positions, the right grades, in the right places to best support Soldiers, Civilians and Families.

"The Army is also providing command teams with updated SHARP policies. We recently updated AR 600-20, Army Command Policy, which consolidates more than a decade of SHARP documents, All Army Activities messages (ALARACTs), and other SHARP program policy changes within a single chapter.

"The Army is developing the Army's first standalone SHARP regulation, and are updating our Suicide Prevention regulation and other policies to better equip Command Teams and Leaders.

"While there is still more work to be done, we continue in earnest to stamp out from our ranks sexual assault and harassment, which are behaviors that have no place in the U.S. Army."

Air Force

"Sexual assault and harassment of any kind is inconsistent with the Department of the Air Force's core values. Sexual Assault Response Coordinators, Special Victims' Counsel, and Victim Advocates are critical to supporting our Airmen and Space Professionals. There's more work to be done as we combat sexual assault and sexual harassment, and the valued guidance and feedback from our care response professionals remain crucial to the effort."

New efforts to combat interpersonal violence, to include sexual assault or harassment:


"The Navy takes seriously all allegations of sexual assault. If a victim contacts a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) or Victim Advocate (VA), they will be provided two reporting options. A Restricted Report gives victims the support and advocacy they need without involving their command or law enforcement. If the victim chooses an Unrestricted Report, the SARC or VA will notify the Commanding Officer, who will contact the Navy Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) to initiate an investigation. If the victim initially reports the sexual assault to anyone in their chain of command, the Commanding Officer is required to refer the allegation to NCIS. The Commanding Officer also notifies the local SARC, who provides victim advocacy and support. The Navy's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Program continues to evolve to meet victims' needs, including the addition of Victims' Legal Counsel, options for expedited transfers, and ways for victims to report retaliation as a result of their assault.

"The Navy continues efforts to combat sexual assault in the ranks through its commitment to advancing a culture of trust, respect, and inclusion across the Navy team. We recognize that making a true impact on this issue requires a comprehensive approach that does not consider sexual assault prevention and response in a silo, but takes a holistic, comprehensive approach to address unique and overlapping risk and protective factors for sexual assault and other destructive behaviors that we are working to prevent.

"Sexual Assault Prevention and Response training starts at Recruit Training Command and continues throughout Sailors' careers. Following completion of basic training, Sailors participate in an interactive 4-day Lifeskills curriculum that addresses topics including drug and alcohol misuse, healthy relationships, prevention of sexual harassment and assault, and effective intervention skills. The training also teaches Sailors how to recognize destructive behaviors and safely intervene.

"The Navy continually assesses this training to ensure timely and relevant information and skill building are incorporated, and to deliver the best programs and processes throughout a Sailor's career. Our ultimate goals with both our prevention and response efforts are to create environments that ensure the health, safety, and welfare of our Sailors and Navy families."

Marine Corps

"Sexual assault is a crime, and is unacceptable. It erodes the trust and cohesion essential to the Marine Corps team, and these actions are incompatible with our core values of honor, courage, and commitment. Bottom line, the Marine Corps holds its Marines to high standards, and holds Marines accountable for their behavior on duty and off duty, on base and off base, online and offline.

"The Marine Corps takes all allegations of sexual assault seriously, and offers victims two means of reporting: Unrestricted and Restricted. 

"An Unrestricted Report initiates an official law enforcement investigation, enlists the support of the chain of command, and provides a victim with access to all supportive service options. These supportive service options include: advocacy services (support, information, referral, and accompaniment); medical/counseling services; victims' legal counsel; law enforcement notification/investigation; command notification/support; military protective order; and expedited transfer. With an Unrestricted Report, knowledge of the sexual assault is limited to those with need-to-know. 

"For an Unrestricted Report, victims can disclose a sexual assault to these people: Uniformed Victim Advocate (UVA); Civilian Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Victim Advocate (SAPR VA); Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC); healthcare personnel; chaplain, victims' legal counsel; chain of command; or law enforcement.

"A Restricted Report is confidential, does not trigger an investigation or command involvement, and allows the victim to access these supportive service options: advocacy services (support, information, referral, and accompaniment); medical/counseling services; and victims' legal counsel. A victim can choose to convert a Restricted Report to Unrestricted at any time; however, once an Unrestricted Report is made, the restricted option is no longer available.

"For a Restricted Report, victims can only disclose a sexual assault to the UVA, SAPR VA, SARC, healthcare personnel*, chaplain, and victims' legal counsel. *except in certain states or local jurisdictions where such personnel are required to disclose sexual assaults to law enforcement, including California.

"You can find more information on resources available to Marines who are the victims of sexual assault at

"The Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2019 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military showed a decline of sexual assaults reported in the Marine Corps. While the Marine Corps continues to eradicate these criminal behaviors from our ranks, provide victims with care, and hold offenders accountable, senior Marine leaders do not equate lower reports of sexual assault with lower instances of this offense. Knowing that sexual assault is traditionally an underreported crime, and the 2018 annual report showed an increase in prevalence, the Marine Corps remains committed to improving its prevention methods and continuing to foster a climate and culture of dignity, respect, and trust. Marines are being provided knowledge, skills, and tools to take action and prevent destructive and inappropriate behaviors that can lead to sexual assault. Bottom line, Marines have a fundamental right to live and work in a healthy environment free from sexual assault and harassment.

"The Marine Corps SAPR program is improving its capacity to implement evidence-informed prevention strategies through its work with the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (DoD SAPRO) Prevention Plan of Action (PPOA). The Marine Corps created a plan of action and milestones to enhance the capacity for preventing sexual assault and other problematic behaviors throughout the Marine Corps by applying science-based prevention strategies at every level.

"Our prevention efforts are focused on eliminating the events, conditions, situations, or exposure to risk factors that make a sexual assault more likely. Symposiums and small-unit leadership led discussions are used as a forum to discuss topics like social media misconduct, sexual communication in the digital age, recognizing and reducing victim blaming, and barriers to reporting, which empower Marines to be more cognizant of the many forms of sexual assault and harassment.

"Marine Corps Sexual Assault Prevention and Response training imparts practical skill building of positive behaviors, such as healthy relationships and interactions, boundaries, and effective communication. Our training is science-based, innovative, and in line with adult-learning techniques."

If you have information you'd like to share about sexual assault, harassment, retaliation or domestic violence in the United States military, please email or text us via Signal 212-975-7171.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.