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Focus on Military Sexual Assault Continues in House

On February 24, the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs continued its examination of efforts by the Department of Defense to prevent and respond to cases of sexual assault in the military during a hearing, “Sexual Assault in the Military, Part IV: Are We Making Progress?” The House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel held a similar hearing on February 3 (see The Source, 2/5/10).

Chair John Tierney (D-MA) said, “In any context, sexual assaults destroy lives. But sexual assault in the military has additional facets that make it of particular concern for this subcommittee. First, it is the unquestioned duty of this body and the U.S. government as a whole to protect our military service members. As I have said many times, the last thing our men and women in uniform should fear when putting their lives on the line to defend this country is being attacked by one of their own. Second, sexual assaults in the military threaten military readiness in an acute way. When bonds of trust are broken, when unit cohesion is threatened, and when our soldiers are forced to cope with the heavy emotional and psychological burden of a sexual attack, our armed forces are weakened. It is not only individual service members who are hurt by these crimes but our military as a whole.”

Gail McGinn, deputy under secretary of Defense (Plans), said, “I can assure you that the issue of sexual assault gets attention at the highest levels of the Department. For example, to offer further guidance to the policies put in place in 2005, in FY2008, secretary of Defense Robert Gates identified four priorities in SAPR programming: [r]educing sexual assault reporting stigma; [e]nsuring sufficient commander training and accountability; [e]nsuring investigator training and resourcing; and [e]nsuring trial counsel training.” She noted that “the Department has addressed stigma in training at all levels of the military, from accession, pre-command, post-deployment integration, as well as mandatory annual refresher training” and that “[n]umerous actions were taken to improve commander training and accountability in FY2009.” She added, “The Military Services jointly reviewed Military Criminal Investigative Organization training and recommended to the Department that training standards be revised to ensure requirements reflect the needs of law enforcement and military criminal investigators responsible for addressing issues and procedures applicable to sexual assault cases,” and that “Military Services jointly reviewed trial counsel training and recommended to the Department that training standards be revised to ensure requirements reflect the needs of judge advocates who are responsible for addressing issues and procedures applicable to sexual assault cases.”

Brenda S. Farrell, director of Defense Capabilities and Management, and Randolph C. Hite, director of Information Technology Architecture and Systems, each of the General Accountability Office (GAO), made a joint statement to the subcommittee, detailing their February 2010 report on the Department of Defense’s (DoD) and the Coast Guard’s oversight and implementation of their respective sexual assault prevention and response programs. “Our main message today is that DoD and the Coast Guard have taken a number of positive steps to increase program awareness and to improve their prevention and response to occurrences of sexual assault, but additional actions are needed to strengthen their respective programs…Our August 2008 report examined sexual assault in the military and Coast Guard services and highlighted that DoD’s and the Coast Guard’s program implementation was hindered by several issues, including the lack of an oversight framework, limited support from commanders, and training that was not consistently effective.”

According to Ms. Farrell and Mr. Hite, to date, DoD has implemented four of nine recommendations made in the August 2008 report: “First, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) established a working group to address our recommendation to evaluate the adequacy of DoD policies for implementing its sexual assault prevention and response program in joint and deployed environments. Second, the military service secretaries have each taken a variety of steps to address our recommendation to emphasize responsibility for program support at all levels of command. The most notable examples of this support include the U.S. Navy’s recent establishment of a sexual assault prevention and response office that will report directly to the secretary of the Navy, and the Army’s incorporation of a sexual assault program awareness assessment into promotional boards for its noncommissioned officers. Third, OSD chartered the Health Affairs Sexual Assault Task Force to address our recommendation to evaluate and address factors that may prevent or discourage service members from seeking health services. Specifically, the task force evaluated and subsequently issued a number of recommendations that are intended to improve access to health care following a sexual assault, including chartering a Sexual Assault Health Care Integrated Policy Team to review department-level policies regarding clinical practice guidelines, standards of care, personnel and staffing, training requirements and responsibilities, continuity of care, and in-theater equipment and supplies. Fourth, the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military Services began its examination of matters related to sexual assault, as we recommended, and on December 1, 2009, the task force released a report with its findings and recommendations.”

Dr. Kaye Whitley, director of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response in the Office of the secretary of Defense, testified that SAPRO has undertaken several steps to expand its response efforts, saying, “While institutionalizing our prevention program, we need to ensure we have robust response programs in place should a sexual assault occur. A recent addition to our response program grew out of a Department of Justice-funded project with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. Entitled Strengthening Military-Civilian Community Partnerships to Respond to Sexual Assault, the project developed an interactive two-day training curriculum that helps civilian agencies assist military victims of sexual assault and their families. This program allowed us to share knowledge on military systems, protocols, and culture to improve services to military sexual assault victims. It also helped build SAPRO’s awareness of the perspectives and initiatives of its community partners. We are currently researching the possibility of a second phase of this project.” Dr. Whitley added, “Our task is daunting since we recruit from a society where sexual assault is one of the most underreported violent crimes. We train more than two million service members in prevention and we train a cadre of responders, including sexual assault response coordinators, victim advocates, commanders, trial counsel, investigators, chaplains, and medical and mental health teams who all work together to provide the best care possible to the victims and hold offenders accountable. Research suggests that changing attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs takes eight to ten years. We are seeing those changes occur especially in the support for the program from our senior military leaders. I have engaged with senior commanders in the Pentagon, in the field, and with the superintendents and commandants of our military academies. They are committed to this program and they are knowledgeable and involved.”

During the hearing, Rep. Tierney questioned whether the military’s practices create an antagonistic view of women. “Our society must ensure that we do a better job of preventing these terrible crimes, providing care for victims, and ensuring that perpetrators are brought to justice. The military context where we consciously create a separate society designed to ensure our national defense only magnifies our obligation to prevent sexual assault.”

Dr. Whitley responded that “As a team, we are making great headway to institutionalize, standardize, and professionalize our programs. Once we achieve all three, we hope to realize our vision: a culture free of sexual assault.”

Ranking Member Jeff Flake (D-AZ) asked whether military leaders were giving the problem of sexual assault the attention it needs. Brig. Gen. Dunbar emphasized that “We want commanders to be involved in this process,” saying, “Access to commanders is critical for the program.”

Dr. Louis Iasiello and Brigadier General Sharon K.G. Dunbar, members of the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military Services Task Force, and Merle Wilberding, an attorney representing Mary Lauterbach, mother of Marine LCpl Marie Lauterbach, who was murdered after filing a sexual assault claim against a fellow Marine, also testified.

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