AP report: U.S. military often fails young sex assault victims on bases

This Feb. 7, 2018, photo, shows Leandra Mulla at her home in Tabor City, N.C. As a high school freshman in 2014, Mulla told Army investigators her ex-boyfriend dragged her to a secluded area of their base in Germany and sexually assaulted her. Four years later, she still wonders what came of her report.

Gerry Broome / AP

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. - A decade after the Pentagon began confronting rape in the ranks, the U.S. military frequently fails to protect or provide justice to the children of service members when they are sexually assaulted by other children on base, an Associated Press investigation has found.

Reports of assaults and rapes among kids on military bases often die on the desks of prosecutors, even when an attacker confesses. Other cases don't make it that far because criminal investigators shelve them, despite requirements they be pursued.

The Pentagon does not know the scope of the problem and does little to track it. AP was able to document nearly 600 sex assault cases on base since 2007 through dozens of interviews and by piecing together records and data from the military's four main branches and school system.

Sexual violence occurs anywhere children and teens gather on base - homes, schools, playgrounds, food courts, even a chapel bathroom. Many cases get lost in a dead zone of justice, with neither victim nor offender receiving help.

"These are the children that we need to be protecting, the children of our heroes," said Heather Ryan, a former military investigator.

The tens of thousands of kids who live on bases in the U.S. and abroad are not covered by military law. The U.S. Justice Department, which has jurisdiction over many military bases, isn't equipped or inclined to handle cases involving juveniles, so it rarely takes them on.

Federal prosecutors, for example, pursued roughly one in seven juvenile sex offense cases that military investigators presented, according to AP's review of about 100 investigative files from Navy and Marine Corps bases.

In one unprosecuted case from Japan, witnesses confirmed that a 17-year-old boy pulled a 17-year-old girl from a car in a school parking lot and took her to his residence, where she said he raped her. A medical exam of the girl found his semen.

On a U.S. Army base in Germany, Leandra Mulla told investigators that her teenage ex-boyfriend dragged her to a secluded area and thrust his hand down her pants while forcibly trying to kiss her. Four years later, Mulla still wonders what came of her report.

Offenders, meanwhile, typically receive neither therapy nor punishment, and some are shuffled off to other installations or into the civilian world.

In Texas, the AP found at least 56 sex assault or rape cases among juveniles on military bases since 2007. Fort Hood showed the most, with 41, followed by Fort Bliss with 10.  

And in Colorado, Army records documented just three cases at Fort Carson since 2007. But AP found another 16 cases that El Paso County authorities investigated.

In North Carolina, at Camp Lejeune, the coastal training ground for U.S. Marines, a 9-year-old boy admitted to Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigators that he had fondled toddlers in his home and classmates at Heroes Elementary School. He said he couldn't help himself.

Military child abuse specialists couldn't help him either - they intervene only when the alleged abuser is a parent or other caretaker. A federal prosecutor twice declined to take action.

A dozen current or former prosecutors and military investigators described to AP how policies within the Pentagon and Justice Department thwarted efforts to help victims and rehabilitate offenders.

"The military is designed to kill people and break things," said former Army criminal investigator Russell Strand, one of the military's pioneering experts on sexual assault. "The primary mission, it's not to deal with kids sexually assaulting kids on federal property."

Sexual assault cases can be difficult to investigate and messy to prosecute, more so when they involve children. Offenders may threaten further harm, and victims or their parents may not want to relive the trauma through lengthy investigations and prosecutions.

AP began investigating sexual violence among military children after readers of its 2017 investigation of sex assault in U.S. public schools described an even more complex problem on bases.

AP found the otherwise data-driven Pentagon does not analyze reports it receives of sexual violence among children and teens on base. When the Defense Department said it could not pinpoint the number of assault reports, AP used U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain investigative reports and data from the agencies that police the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines. AP also analyzed documents released by the Pentagon's school system, which educates 71,000 students in seven U.S. states and 11 other countries.

Records the military initially released omitted a third of the cases AP identified through interviews with prosecutors, military investigators, family members, whistleblowers and data that officials later provided. Other cases get buried.

Strand, now a private-sector consultant, estimated that in the Army alone colleagues passed on opening several hundred sex assault cases involving offenders under 14. Strand said he learned of those alleged assaults in the 32 years that he was a military investigator and, later, as a trainer.

Responding to AP's findings, the Defense Department said it "takes seriously any incident impacting the well-being of our service members and their families." The department promised to take "appropriate actions" to help juveniles involved in sex assaults. It said it was "not aware of any juvenile sex offender treatment specialists" working in the military or its school system.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense described child-on-child sexual assault as "an emerging issue" that merited further review. AP found that military lawyers have warned about a juvenile justice black hole since the 1970s.

The military's school system said student safety was its highest priority, that school officials were obligated to report all incidents and that "a single report of sexual assault is one too many."