The Minnesota National Guard received 90 reports of sexual assault in the past five years, ranging from inappropriate touching to rape, according to a first-ever tally released Thursday.
Guard leaders shared the data with more than 400 soldiers, airmen and civilian employees gathered at an armory in Arden Hills for another first: a candid town hall-style meeting to discuss sexual assault.
The new strategy is designed encourage more survivors to report incidents and provide a safe work environment at a time of heightened attention to exposing and investigating sexual assault.
"This event and the transparency that comes with open dialogue is important to us as we join the effort to bring sexual assault and survivor support to the forefront of the community discussion," said Maj. Gen. Jon Jensen. The Guard aims to be a place that "prioritizes dignity and respect," Jensen said.
A National Guard soldier and sexual assault survivor also addressed the crowd, drawing praise from Jensen, who pledged to do more to support victims.
"Her courage stands as a tremendous example of resiliency for our service members," Jensen said.
The Minnesota National Guard has about 13,200 soldiers and airmen. About 20% are women.
"We want to talk about this. We care about this. We have done good things so far, but we have a lot more to do and we recognize that," said Lt. Col. Lyndsey Olson, deputy staff judge advocate with the Minnesota National Guard, who is also the St. Paul city attorney.
Of the 51 cases for which the Guard could release details, 35 were incidents in which both victim and offender were members of the Guard. In the remaining 16 cases, the victim was a member of the Guard and the offender was either a civilian or a member of another military unit.
Of the 51 victims, 48 were women and three were men.
The Guard doesn't have a law enforcement unit, so it sends assault cases to local law enforcement agencies. When that outside investigation has concluded, the guard has an independent unit that conducts its own investigation. Soldiers can face penalties ranging from reprimands or loss of pay to a less-than-honorable discharge.
In a briefing with reporters, Jensen said the Guard's handling of sexual assault has change dramatically since 2011, and he discussed its efforts to improve reporting and services for survivors.
"We have moved away from the days of blaming survivors for their own sexual assault," he said. "Our response is now centered on believing and supporting all of our survivors as a starting point."
He described victim advocates, outside investigators, chaplains and others who now respond when an assault is reported. "We attempt to quickly surround survivors with a supportive and caring team," Jensen said.
He said there's also less emphasis on punishing the victim for minor infractions such as underage drinking that surface during the investigation.
"It's very important that we don't look for collateral investigations related to our victims. I am committed to that," Jensen said. "We don't want to ever punish a victim for reporting."
Finally, Jensen said he is forming a review board to examine the guard's policies and practices related to sexual assault prevention, training and reporting. It will confer with victims and outside law enforcement officials and prepare a list of recommendations and best practices.
"We know sexual assault across society and across the military is underreported, underinvestigated and underprosecuted," he added. "We have to focus our efforts on providing a command climate and a support system that leads to more reporting."