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Pentagon Announces Efforts To Address Sexual Assaults, Critics Say Measures Fall Short

Pentagon Announces Efforts To Address Sexual Assaults, Critics Say Measures Fall Short

January 20, 2012 — Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on Wednesday outlined a series of initiatives designed to reduce sexual assaults in the military, though critics say the measures do not go far enough, Stars and Stripes reports (Carroll, Stars and Stripes, 1/19).

According to Panetta, the number of sexual assaults in the military has risen steadily since 2005, when the Department of Defense began using a new methodology to track sexual assault reports. In 2011, there were 3,191 reports of sexual assault, though because these crimes often go unreported, the true number likely is closer to 19,000, Panetta said.

The announced measures include a requirement that military sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates receive training to the highest national standards (Carroll, Stars and Stripes, 1/18). DOD also will permit spouses, civilians employees and contractors to use victim services available to people serving in the military (Jelinek/Burns, AP/Boston Globe, 1/19).

DOD will devote $9.3 million over five years to improve training, investigations and prosecutions, Panetta added (Stars and Stripes, 1/18). Meanwhile, he ordered an assessment to be performed within 120 days on how to best train senior Pentagon officials in sexual assault prevention and response (Herb, "DEFCON Hill," The Hill, 1/18).

Critics Want Bolder Action

Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) commended the newly announced initiatives but noted that many of them already are mandated under the Defense Authorization Bill passed by Congress last month.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) praised the inclusion of military spouses in the new initiatives but said other policies are "not bold enough." She noted that military unit commanders "continue to have complete and total discretion over incidents of assault in their unit," adding, "A commander can choose to investigate a case or sweep it under the rug" (Mulrine, Christian Science Monitor, 1/19).

Speier recommended that the decision to prosecute sexual assault cases be taken out of the chain of command, as would be required under legislation she introduced last year.

Anu Bhagwait, executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, said, "Commander influence is the crux of the problem," which would not be addressed by "[s]pending an extra $10 million training military lawyers to try these cases." She called it a "waste of time" to study how commanders are trained to deal with sexual assault cases. "In the past 16 years, there have been 18 studies by the DOD on sexual assaults," she said, adding, "It is time for the secretary to change the military justice system which continues to deny justice to sexual assault survivors" (Stars and Stripes, 1/19).

Army Report Shows Sharp Rise in Sex Crimes

On the heels of Panetta's announcement, a DOD report released on Thursday found that sex crimes -- including rapes and aggravated sexual assaults -- have increased drastically in the Army over the past five years (Bloomberg News/Cleveland Plain Dealer, 1/20). According to the report, the crimes increased by 90% from 2006 to 2011. In 2011, there were 2,811 violent felonies, almost half of which were violent felony sex crimes. Most occurred in the U.S.

The report said higher rates of sex crimes are "likely outcomes" of intentional misconduct, lax discipline, post-combat adrenaline, and high levels of stress and behavioral health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Soldiers with PTSD are up to three times more likely to act aggressively toward their female partners than soldiers without the condition, the report said (Slosson, Reuters, 1/19).