Military Doesn’t Tolerate Sexual Assault, Leaders Tell Congress

WASHINGTON, Feb. 16, 2011 — The Defense Depart­ment has zero tol­er­ance for sex­u­al assaults and is mak­ing head­way in pre­vent­ing them and tak­ing aggres­sive action when they occur, Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Con­gress today.
Tes­ti­fy­ing before the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee about the fis­cal 2012 bud­get request, the lead­ers respond­ed to a congressman’s ques­tion about a class-action law­suit filed yes­ter­day.

A group of 17 for­mer and cur­rent ser­vice­mem­bers claimed that Gates and for­mer Defense Sec­re­tary Don­ald H. Rums­feld took inad­e­quate steps to pre­vent them from being raped, sex­u­al­ly assault­ed or sex­u­al­ly harassed.

Lim­it­ing his response in light of the law­suit, Gates said the mat­ter is of “grave con­cern” and said he has worked close­ly with Mullen and oth­er mil­i­tary lead­ers to address the issue.

“I have zero tol­er­ance for sex­u­al assault, and I’ve worked with Chair­man Mullen and the Joint Chiefs and the ser­vice sec­re­taries to see if we’re doing all we can to pre­vent and respond to sex­u­al assaults,” he said.

Gates said he has had mul­ti­ple meet­ings on the sub­ject with senior lead­ers over the past four years and estab­lished crit­i­cal areas of depart­men­tal focus. These involve reduc­ing the stig­ma asso­ci­at­ed with report­ing inci­dents, ensur­ing com­man­ders receive suf­fi­cient train­ing, and pro­vid­ing appro­pri­ate train­ing and resources to inves­ti­ga­tors and tri­al coun­sel.

“We’ve hired dozens more inves­ti­ga­tors, field instruc­tors, pros­e­cu­tors and lab exam­in­ers,” Gates told the pan­el. “We’ve spent close to $2 mil­lion over the last two years to train our pros­e­cu­tors so that they’re bet­ter able to be suc­cess­ful. We have expand­ed the sex­u­al assault response coor­di­na­tor and vic­tim advo­cates ten­fold, from 300 to 3,000.

“And we now have those advo­cates at every base and instal­la­tion in the world, includ­ing in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he added.

Gates also not­ed that the per­cent­age of alleged sex­u­al-assault offend­ers fac­ing court-mar­tial pro­ceed­ings has increased from about 30 per­cent in 2007 to 52 per­cent in 2010.

In addi­tion, defense offi­cials not­ed that the inci­dence rate of sex­u­al assault has decreased sub­stan­tial­ly. In 2006, 6.8 per­cent of women and 1.8 per­cent of men on active duty indi­cat­ed expe­ri­enc­ing some form of sex­u­al assault in the year before they were sur­veyed. Last year, that dropped to 4.4 per­cent of women and 0.9 per­cent of men.

“So we are mak­ing head­way,” Gates told the House pan­el. “The fact is, we aren’t where we should be. It is a grave con­cern, and we will keep work­ing on it.”

Mullen echoed Gates’ call for improve­ments in edu­ca­tion and a focus on lead­er­ship to address the prob­lem.

Every unit com­man­der receives sex­u­al assault pre­ven­tion and response pro­gram train­ing before tak­ing com­mand, offi­cials not­ed.

But Mullen con­ced­ed that sex­u­al assault remains an “extra­or­di­nar­i­ly dif­fi­cult issue.” He acknowl­edged that “enough anec­do­tal infor­ma­tion” has come out of Iraq and Afghanistan to be of con­cern.

The chair­man added that it’s “unac­cept­able” the depart­ment has not yet reached the point where it should be on the issue.

“We still have sig­nif­i­cant work to do,” he said. “And the lead­er­ship is focused on that.”

Nation­wide, sex­u­al assault is one of the nation’s most under­re­port­ed crimes, most like­ly because of vic­tims’ con­cerns about the stig­ma asso­ci­at­ed with the crime and loss of pri­va­cy, Pen­ta­gon spokes­woman Cyn­thia Smith said.

“It has no place in the U.S. mil­i­tary and can­not be tol­er­at­ed,” she said. “The result of these crimes degrades morale, unit cohe­sion and can affect mis­sion readi­ness.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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