What Trump got right and wrong about sexual assault in the military

Donald Trump stepped on a landmine with his recent comments about sexual assault in the military.

At NBC’s town hall this week on national security issues, the Republican nominee defended — and expanded upon — his controversial tweet a few years ago that sexual attacks are to be expected “when they put men and women together” in the armed forces.

“26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military — only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?” Trump tweeted in 2013.

Here’s a look at the facts.

Q: Did Trump’s stats give the full picture?

A: No. He left out a very important figure: More than half the victims are men.

According to the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, of the 20,300 members of the military who say they were sexually assaulted in a 2014 survey, 10,600 were men, who are most often victimized by other men.

Retired US Air Force chief prosecutor and Protect Our Defenders president Col. Don Christensen said that shouldn’t come as a surprise because men make up 85% of the military.

“The rate of assault is higher among women, but most of the victims identified in the surveys are men,” he said.

Q: Trump suggested the problem is caused by men and women serving side by side. Really?

A: That has nothing to do with it, say experts.

“There are a lot of factors that make certain people more vulnerable, but simply the fact that men and women work together is not one of them,” said Kate Germano of the Service Women’s Action Network.

“They have served for decades and decades, and to say that women and men working together is the reason behind the sexual assault rates is obviously not true,” she added.

Q: Yeah, haven’t women been part of the military for a long time?

A: Sure have. Going back to the Revolutionary War, in fact, with their roles expanding since then.

Women followed their husbands throughout that war and, with the permission of commanding officers, served in military camps if they proved they could be helpful. During World War I and II, tens of thousands of women served as nurses and support staff at home and abroad in non-combat roles. Congress allowed women to advance to general and admiral ranks in 1967. But it was not until the 1990s that women were able move into combat positions.

Q: Trump’s main point was prosecution rates are low. Does he have that right?

A: Definitely. Last year, there were 543 prosecutions and 254 convictions involving a sex offense. That’s just a small fraction of the number of reported and estimated attacks.

According to the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) program, there were 6,083 reports of sexual assault involving service members in 2015, and, because of underreporting, the Defense Department estimates the true number of sexual assaults to be over 20,000.

Q: Trump suggested a military court system is needed to handle such cases. But isn’t there already one?

A: Yes, there is. But some lawmakers and critics say it’s in need of a major overhaul.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a leading advocate for changes to ensure service members have their sexual assault cases properly investigated and prosecuted, has sought reform, although so far without success. She has pushed for an independent system, removing the military chain of command from the handling of such cases.

“We need to create an unbiased military justice system where trained prosecutors handle these cases, so that sexual predators can get punished instead of protected as they are today,” she said. “It is our responsibility to the men and women who serve our country to create a military justice system worthy of their sacrifice.”