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Investigation

Audit Criticizes Army’s Suicide, Sexual Assault Research Oversight

Few “Actionable Recommendations” Flow from Scores of Studies Amidst Ongoing Crises
(Illustration: Leslie Garvey / POGO; Photos: Getty Images; Department of Defense; National Archives and Records Administration)

In recent years, the Army has poured money into funding scores of studies of problems plaguing its ranks, from sexual harassment and assault to domestic violence, suicide, and substance abuse. But a new, previously nonpublic January 2023 audit obtained by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) finds that the vast majority of these recent studies do not include any recommendations for change, and the Army hasn’t taken any action in response to the relative few that do.

From fiscal years 2019 through 2022, the Army sponsored 47 published studies related to sexual harassment and misconduct, domestic abuse, substance abuse, and suicide, but about 89% of those studies had no “actionable recommendations,” according to the January 2023 Army Audit Agency report obtained by POGO through the Freedom of Information Act. The report “defined an actionable recommendation as one that identifies specific changes to policies, practices, or systems to address Soldiers’ harmful behaviors.” Of the remaining 11% of studies with actionable recommendations published during that three-year period, the Army has acted on none of their 10 recommendations.

“Not carrying out the recommendations in the suicide and sexual assault contexts has real consequences,” said Josh Connolly, senior vice president of Protect Our Defenders, a group that works to end sexual misconduct in the military. “I find that troubling.”

The audit was launched after staff in the Army’s Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff expressed concerns that the research projects the Army funded “weren’t providing valuable information.”

In trying to figure out why so few studies made recommendations, auditors identified a litany of oversight shortcomings that have persisted despite earlier recommendations and findings from an Army report in 2010.

The failure to fully address the oversight problems spotlighted more than 12 years ago raises questions about the Army’s follow-through in addressing these shortcomings and the underlying issues. “Without stronger governance, the Army will continue to lack full awareness of its research on Soldiers’ harmful behaviors and assurance it’s realizing the value of investing in that research,” the January 2023 audit states.

Another reason so few studies have recommendations for change is “Army researchers considered most of these research projects and studies to be foundational or basic research meant to increase general knowledge,” the audit states. “Consequently, the researchers didn’t expect the projects and studies to produce results with specific applications and actionable recommendations.”

The Army did not respond to POGO’s request for comment.

Alarming Suicide, Sexual Assault Trends Inside the Army

The problems within the Army are acute, and have led to searing national headlines such as those over the “military’s suicide crisis” and “the epidemic of military sexual assault.”

Last fall, the Pentagon released a report showing more than a 25% increase in reports of sexual assault in the Army from fiscal years 2020 to 2021, a much higher rate of increase than in any other military service. The Pentagon report said that it “cannot scientifically determine if there was a true increase in prevalence of unwanted sexual contact,” but “estimated rates of other misconduct highly correlated with unwanted sexual contact (i.e., sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and workplace hostility) also increased for women.” The data, the report says, suggests growth in an “unhealthy military climate.”

It is clear that the military has not meaningfully addressed the scourge of sexual assault and harassment.

Josh Connolly, senior vice president of Protect Our Defenders

“It is clear that the military has not meaningfully addressed the scourge of sexual assault and harassment,” Connolly told POGO. He worked as chief of staff to former Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA), who held congressional hearings on military sexual misconduct and introduced legislation that became law, such as taking cases out of the chain of command. “It couldn't be more clear. These numbers keep going in the wrong direction.”

A November 2020 independent review regarding Fort Cavazos (then Fort Hood) in Texas, one of the Army’s largest bases, found a “culture towards women in the Enlisted ranks [that] if not addressed proactively creates breeding grounds for sexual assault.” That review was launched after a number of base personnel were accused of sexual harassment, committed murder, or died by suicide.

One of the cases that sparked the review was that of slain Fort Cavazos-based Specialist Vanessa Guillén, which involved all three issues. A fellow soldier, Specialist Aaron Robinson, took his own life shortly after he was accused of murdering Guillén. She had reported sexual harassment on base by others and Army “leaders failed to take appropriate action,” according to an Army investigation, which also found that “Robinson sexually harassed another Soldier (not SPC Guillén).”

Another Fort Cavazos-based Army Specialist, Ana Basaldua, was found dead earlier this year, and her mother has said that she experienced sexual harassment in the weeks before her death. Her family said she took her own life; the Army is investigating her death. “It is very likely that the toxic culture, including a permissiveness to sexual assault and harassment that was present during Vanessa Guillen’s death persists,” said Connolly in a statement last month.

The Army’s active-duty suicide rate in 2021 was 47% higher than the Marine Corps and more than double that of the Navy and Air Force.

The Pentagon’s most recent annual report on suicide in the ranks covers calendar year 2021. “Over the past few years, men, enlisted Service members, and those under the age of 30 have each been at higher risk for suicide compared to the population average,” the report states, with firearms the overwhelming cause.

That annual report shows by far the highest suicides rates among active-duty troops are in the Army compared to the other military services. The Army’s active-duty suicide rate in 2021 was 47% higher than the Marine Corps and more than double that of the Navy and Air Force.

“Historically, the suicide rate among Army personnel was below that of the civilian population. Since 2002, however, the suicide rate among Soldiers had risen significantly, reaching record levels,” a 2018 Army report stated.

The report explained that evidence from research can lead to better decision-making to prevent suicide and other harmful behaviors. “It is clear that translating research findings into everyday command, medical, and community practice is immensely helpful,” states the 2018 report.

But the new audit obtained by POGO shows that the Army isn’t doing a good enough job turning research into change.

No One Is In Charge of the Army’s Research Efforts

The oversight problems behind the paucity of actionable recommendations and action taken in response are manifold. They range from a lack of leadership to lack of follow-up to a mismatch between the Army’s prevention approach and what’s being studied, and more.

A root cause is no one is in charge of overseeing the sprawling portfolio of research, much of which is filed away without reaching key Army decisionmakers, the audit report found. “Current research efforts are often fragmented and not pushed to organizations or leaders who can affect change,” the audit says.

“These conditions primarily occurred because the Army didn’t centralize governance over research of harmful behaviors,” the audit states. An Army group recommended strengthening research oversight in 2010 but the Army failed to act on that recommendation. “When we asked research personnel why this didn’t happen, no one could provide a definite explanation,” the audit states.

The Army doesn’t track all of the research it funds through five different Army organizations. “None of them was fully aware of the others’ planned and ongoing research,” states the audit. “Armywide visibility of research projects and studies on harmful behaviors didn’t exist.”

In the handful of cases where recommendations were made, they were directed toward no one or no organization.

Of the 47 research studies examined, 37 called for more research, but none of the five organizations “had a formal process for evaluating the efficacy of research recommended in published reports,” according to the audit.

Even though Army staff indicated to auditors that “they tracked the progress of research projects and studies,” according to the audit, “they didn’t have documentation showing active tracking of three of the five reports with actionable recommendations.”

Auditors found that Army organizations funding studies “didn’t have a repository to share information with other stakeholders on planned, ongoing, and completed research.” The audit states that one of the five Army organizations told auditors “stakeholders had to contact the researchers” to get copies of their studies.

In the handful of cases where recommendations were made, they were directed toward no one or no organization. “None of the 10 actionable recommendations in those 5 reports was directed to a specific organization,” the audit states. “Therefore, no organization could be held accountable for implementing the recommendations.”

The audit also found that there’s a disconnect between the Army’s prevention strategy and the research being funded. “The intent of this strategy is to move the Army toward addressing harmful behaviors in a comprehensive and preventive manner. By contrast, current programs target intervention and response actions in the moments leading up to or after an occurrence of harmful behavior,” the audit states.

The auditors couldn’t even figure out how much money has been spent on these studies or how many personnel have worked on them.

The Army told auditors it will improve oversight, and that those improvements will be in place by September 30, 2024.

But others within the Army have flagged these problems before. “Our results were similar to those in a 2018 report on the use of research findings. For 157 research studies reviewed for that report, 115 had findings calling for no action and 37 recommended further study. Only a handful had actionable recommendations,” states the January 2023 audit.

And a 2010 report recommended changes within the Army “to reduce duplication of effort and more importantly to ensure research that is carried out leads to meaningful and executable programs that affect the lives of Soldiers and Families.” Those changes still haven’t been fully realized more than a dozen years later.


Resources if you or someone you know needs help

The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a trained listener, call 988. Visit 988lifeline.org for crisis chat services or for more information.

The Department of Defense Safe Helpline is the sole secure, confidential, and anonymous crisis support service specially designed for members of the Department of Defense community affected by sexual assault. You can call 24/7 at 877-995-5247 to be connected with a trained, confidential Safe Helpline staff member, or visit safehelpline.org for more information.