When talking about sexual assault in the military, there’s a line that almost always surfaces, particularly in the comment section of a news story: What about the false reports?
Other times it’s brought up by someone who appears to have a stack of purely anecdotal evidence: “I know a guy who has a friend who said they had a false report in their unit.” There always seems to be a buddy from boot camp who knows a “really good guy” whose career was ruined by a false claim.
The underlying message of this repeated claim is simple: The person reporting their sexual assault is lying.
It’s something that Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Terrell, the sexual assault response coordinator (SARC) for the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade out of Fort Stewart, Georgia, said he’s heard more than once from soldiers during Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) training.
But in the five years that he’s worked on sexual assault for the Army, he said he’s never come across a false report. Not once.
“It’s a defense mechanism that a lot of the accused do, and I really believe that is how that whole conversation gets into our ranks,” Terrell said. “I’ve dealt with a lot of cases over the last five years, and I’ve not experienced any false reports.”
“Have I heard soldiers say that during SHARP training? Yeah, I have,” he said. “‘Well what about the false reports?’ If you want to talk statistics we can, but I’m telling you that is not a thing.”
False reports are just one of the myths and misconceptions about sexual assault in the military that Terrell is working to dispel because ultimately, he said, it’s victim-blaming, and it contributes to victims’ reluctance to come forward and make a report. He said he doesn’t “entertain it at all” and assures the soldiers who come to speak with him that after he takes on their case, “you are now my client and I’m providing a service to you.”
“We’re going to immediately start building you up. Period. Don’t worry about all those soldiers out here talking about [how] you’re making a false report or all kinds of outlandish things,” he said. “Don’t worry about that. We’re going to fix this right here.”
According to a 2020 Pentagon report, a case can be determined to be “unsubstantiated” if it is found to either be false or baseless. A case is considered false when evidence either “demonstrates that the accused person did not commit the offense,” or evidence “refutes the occurrence of a crime,” or considered baseless when an incident doesn’t meet the definition of sexual assault. The report shows that in 2019, commanders decided not to take action in just 50 of 2,339 cases — one percent of cases reported that year — because allegations were found to have been “false or baseless.”
Do false reports happen occasionally? Terrell said it probably does, but not in his unit. They are “extremely rare,” said retired Col. Don Christensen, the president of advocacy group Protect Our Defenders and former chief prosecutor for the Air Force, who remembers only two such cases during his 30-year career.
Christensen also made an important distinction: false reports and unfounded reports are not the same.
“By actual ‘false allegations’ I mean a case where the victim intentionally says they were sexually assaulted or raped knowing that they either consented or no such activity ever occurred,” Christensen said, noting cases of mistaken identity or insufficient evidence that can result in allegations being found unsubstantiated. “But that is different from a false allegation.”
In other words, intentionally and knowingly misrepresenting an incident as sexual assault, and making a sexual assault report that authorities are unable to prove, are not the same. But that doesn’t stop it from being brought up as a reason not to believe victims during discussions about assault, and Terrell is, quite frankly, not standing for it.
Terrell has a passion for what he does, which includes training leaders in his unit on sexual harassment and assault. Part of that is likely due to the command climate he’s working in where there is “perfect” continuity between victim advocates, response coordinators like himself, and commanders, he said. Reprisal or mistreatment of soldiers for reporting is simply not tolerated.
But the kind of environment Terrell described is not the reality that many other soldiers find themselves in. That was made brutally clear last year with the release of a report detailing the command climate at Fort Hood, Texas, and the way the SHARP program was failing soldiers left and right.
The report revealed a “permissive” environment for sexual assault and harassment at the Central Texas base, where there was a “clearly identified high risk” against enlisted women. Yet leadership appeared to be going about “business as usual,” according to the report, which said women were pushed into “survival mode.” Of more than 500 women who were interviewed, half said they weren’t confident in their commanders, and 32 percent said they wouldn’t be comfortable reporting assault or harassment through Fort Hood’s SHARP program.
But Terrell remains hopeful about the SHARP program and encouraged victim advocates and response coordinators to be confident. “We have the torch in our hand,” he said. “We want to carry it.” And don’t be timid or dodge uncomfortable questions, he advised; the work of supporting victims is too important.
“We have a mission, and our soldiers are counting on us — are dependent on us — to carry that torch and shine a light down into the formations,” Terrell said. “Because predators do not like to be seen. And we will shine a light right on you.”
Featured image: Pvt. Elizare Turner, Tango Company, 266th Quartermaster Battalion; Pfc. Victoria Huda, Bravo Co., 266th QM Bn.; and Pfc. Owen Doane, Bravo Co., 266th QM Bn., pose for pictures Dec. 3 near their barracks. The three volunteered for and earned teal ribbons as representatives of Students Against Sexual Harassment, a 23rd QM Brigade grassroots effort that trains students to be information conduits for the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program. (U.S. Army/Fort Lee Public Affairs)