Reports of sexual assault made by Marines in unit focused on integration of women

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Marines with the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force fire the M4 carbine during an exercise at Twentynine Palms, Calif., on Feb. 24, 2015 (Alicia R. Leaders/USMC)
Marines with the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force fire the M4 carbine during an exercise at Twentynine Palms, Calif., on Feb. 24, 2015 (Alicia R. Leaders/USMC)

Reports of sexual assault made by Marines in unit focused on integration of women

by: Dan Lamothe | .
The Washington Post | .
published: October 16, 2015

WASHINGTON — Seven sexual assaults were reported by servicemembers in a Marine Corps unit established within the past year to research how to better integrate women into combat roles and units, according to an analysis of the integration effort obtained by The Washington Post.

The alleged assaults have not previously been disclosed but are detailed in  a 103-page report released to The Washington Post by two researchers who have been vocal advocates of fully integrating women in the military. The documents are part of a broader written analysis by the Marines to assess how women in the unit performed compared to men. The Marines initially described the research in a four-page summary last month, and it quickly attracted controversy because they concluded that the women in the unit were injured more frequently and shot less accurately than men.

The report was signed and dated Aug. 27 by several officials at Quantico, Va. It was labeled as not releasable through the Freedom of Information Act.

The unit was known as the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force and included about 300 men and 100 women. Its members spent about four months training at Camp Lejeune, N.C., before carrying out a simulated deployment to bases in California at Twentynine Palms and Bridgeport to perform combat skills ranging from shooting to hiking while under monitoring.

"Starting with the most recently integrated unit, Marines in the ITF report sexual assault histories at levels similar to those in other military populations," the document said. "Sexual assaults reported during the life of the ITF were at a rate slightly higher than those experienced in other military populations. One sexual assault was formally reported and six sexual assaults were reported anonymously."

The Marines reported being assaulted during a survey of unit members carried out in March at Twentynine Palms by the Naval Health Research Center, said a Marine source with knowledge of the research, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. They were asked whether they had been assaulted in the previous six months, which at that point included time both in the unit and before it was formed in October 2014.

Maj. Chris Devine, a Marine Corps spokesman at the Pentagon, said in a statement released to The Washington Post that the service takes all allegations and acts of sexual assault seriously.

"This behavior — whether on duty, on liberty, or online — is not in keeping with our core values and is detrimental to victims and to unit cohesion and readiness," Devine said. "Without violating the confidentiality of our Marines, it's impossible to tell if the sexual assaults they experienced occurred at the ITF, while on liberty or leave, or at a prior unit. Because of the anonymous reporting, these cases of sexual assaults could have occurred [as a member of the integrated task force] and could have occurred prior to joining."

The report does not specify what occurred or whether men or women reported being assaulted. But the reports come amid a broad review in the U.S. military to assess how women can be more fully integrated into ground combat units, which have long been closed to women. The Marine Corps is widely seen as more opposed to fully integrating women than the other services.

The alleged assaults were reported during a multi-year effort to rein in sexual abuse in the military. There were 6,131 reports of sexual assault in fiscal 2014, according to the Pentagon's annual report to Congress on the issue. It is widely thought that thousands more go unreported each year.

The assault reports caught some of the Marines in the task force by surprise.

"I never experienced, saw or heard of any sexual assault cases while I was with the unit," said Sgt. Danielle Beck, a female anti-armor gunner in the task force, which was formed last October and deactivated in July after the research was completed. "If there were any, it should have been addressed to the entire unit."

The task force treated sexual assault concerns like every other unit Beck has been in, she said. It had training on sexual assault awareness and prevention, and representatives in each company of Marines who acted as sexual assault prevention and response officers, Beck added.

The Marines found that women in the integrated unit were injured twice as often, less accurate with infantry weapons and not as good at removing wounded comrades from the line of fire. Units comprising all men also were faster than units with women at completing tactical movements, especially while carrying large "crew-served" weapons such as machine guns and mortars, the study found.

Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, who served as the service's commandant until taking over as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff last month, recommended against opening a few positions, including infantryman, according to two Marine officials with knowledge of the general's thinking. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Dunford is thought to have cited the findings of the gender-integrated task force in his decision. That put him at odds with Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who has questioned the validity of the research. Mabus, who oversees both the Navy and Marine Corps, said last month in an interview that he still thinks all jobs should be opened to women and noted that the task force study focused on what the average female Marine could do, rather than high performers who may be able to keep up in the infantry and other combat units.

"Part of the study said that women tend not to be able to carry as heavy of a load for as long," Mabus told NPR. "But, there are women who went through this study that could. And part of the study said that we're afraid that because women get injured more frequently, that over time women will break down more. That you will begin to lose your combat effectiveness over time. That was not shown in this study. That was an extrapolation based on injury rates, and I'm not sure that's right."

The researchers who obtained and shared the documents with The Washington Post, Ellen Haring and Megan MacKenzie, expounded on similar concerns in an essay posted online Tuesday night. Haring, a reserve Army colonel, and MacKenzie, a professor and author of a book on gender integration in the military, wrote that they had obtained more than 380 pages of research and found the Marine Corps' study to be "inherently flawed" and detailed thus far only in a limited way that has not addressed generalizations made.

"Significantly, the unclassified yet previously unreleased research documents indicate that women do not negatively impact unit cohesion, that the study sought to measure the impacts of integration in the absence of established combat standards, that female volunteers in the study had no operating force experience in ground combat units, and that better physical screening would have all but eliminated the rates of injury for women," Haring and MacKenzie wrote.

The researchers do not address the reported sexual assaults in their online analysis. MacKenzie said in a phone interview that they wanted to focus on the study itself and the methods used.

"The sexual assault piece is really important, but it's a separate issue than whether the research is legitimate," she said. She noted that there were women in the unit who kept up with the men, according to the documents they obtained that were reviewed by The Washington Post.

The Marine Corps' research had mixed findings on how men and women working together in a simulated combat environment affected morale, according to the report. They were surveyed at least three times.

"Attitudes towards gender integration were little changed across the three surveys, with female Marines having a more positive attitude towards integration than male Marines do," the report said. "Perceptions of combat effectiveness, unit cohesion, trust, teamwork, and morale started high, and then declined over time."

Such a decline in morale is not unexpected, given the demanding nature of the live testing of the social dynamics at play, the report said.

"Formal reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the GCE-ITF were lower than comparably sized units in the operating forces," the report said. "In addition, there are no indications that rates of sexual harassment and sexual assault will rise following gender integration."

A spokesman for Mabus, Navy Capt. Patrick McNally, said that it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the alleged assaults because they may come to him for a decision later. Mabus has previously said that his department must do all it can to protect people from potential predators, especially if they are in the military.

Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said it is every servicemember's right to serve in a climate of dignity and respect.

"Regarding the report, we are committed to removing barriers that prevent servicemembers from serving in any capacity based on their abilities and qualifications, not constrained by gender-restrictive policies," Davis said. "Secretary Carter has received recommendations on gender integration from each service, he added, and "will make decisions by the end of the year that are based upon thoughtful and analytical review of the data."

Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed to this report.

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