Military helping sexual assault victims

By Tom Philpott, Military Update

Sexual assault victims in the military have had only one avenue inside their command — a visit to the chaplain — to report an attack and receive counseling, and still have the incident remain confidential.

That weakness and others, involving lack of victim protection and inadequate command response, are targets of new sexual assault policies unveiled at the Pentagon on Tuesday.

The changes, aimed at preventing assaults, enhancing victim support and raising command accountability, are the Defense Department’s answer to an accumulation of disturbing reports the last two years regarding sexual assaults in the ranks.

A pattern of harassment and attacks on female cadets, perhaps going back two decades, was uncovered at the Air Force Academy. Another report found that during the first year of allied occupation of Iraq more than 100 U.S. female service members, there and in Kuwait, had been sexually assaulted.

Congress mandated the department adopt more effective sexual assault policies by Jan. 1. The changes are based on recommendations by the department’s own task force on sexual assault, which delivered its report to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last April.

The emphasis is on standardized education on assault and harassment across the services, at all levels of command and throughout members’ careers, from boot camp up through a senior officer’s preparation for major command. Commanders will be given a checklist to guide their actions in addressing needs of victims and proper handling of accused.

The task force had pressed for improved protection of victims. It said they should be treated with more dignity and respect, and should receive better, more timely medical care and counseling.

David Chu, Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, said all of that will happen. Under the new policies, the services will adopt a common definition of sexual assault; standardize prevention and response training; beef up capabilities to respond to assaults which, at each command or installation, will include a new position of Sexual Assault Response Coordinator. The “SARC’’ will serve as a single point of contact for victims and for commanders to coordinate support and to track handling of incidents.

Chu said the incidence of military sexual assaults has been cut in half over the last six years and is not high relative to the rest of American society. But “any incidence is reprehensible,’’ he said, “so our goal is zero.’’

One obvious failing inside the military is lack of privacy and confidentiality in reporting assaults, Chu said. This has discouraged victims from coming forward, either because they are intimidated, embarrassed or fear hurting their own careers. The new policies — and, if necessary, the department also will press for changes in law — will expand the universe of individuals that victims can consult confidentially, to include healthcare workers and victim advocates, some of whom will be outside the military.

“I want to emphasize we will use the full range of resources available to our society in this regard,’’ Chu said.
More training is planned also to ensure forensic evidence is collected in a timely and legally effective way so crimes can be prosecuted.

When victims are ready, they still will have to step forward, forfeiting some privacy to file complaints so that law enforcement personnel can investigate. But a critical change, said Chu, is that visits to superiors or to base clinics after an attack no longer will immediately trigger an investigation, which can discourage victims from seeking care or counsel.

“We are still working out exactly who needs to know what,’’ Chu said. Lawyers also are debating whether changes in statute are needed to better protect the privacy of assault victims.

Brig. Gen. K.C. McClain, as commander of DoD’s Joint Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, is coordinating the policy changes with the services and providing day-to-day oversight of implementation.

“This is a substantial change in how the department approaches and handles the sexual assault issue,’’ McClain said. “We firmly believe it will make a tremendous difference in the lives of the men and women in our services.’’

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at:
milupdate@aol.com