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House Subcommittee Discusses Sexual Assault in the Military

On July 31, the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs held a hearing on sexual assault in the military. Chair John Tierney (D-MA) stated, “We fundamentally have a duty to prevent sexual assaults in the military as much as humanly possible and to punish attackers quickly and severely. We also must empower victims, so they feel comfortable coming forward to seek justice and to receive help to get their lives back on track and to restore their dignity. Finally, we simply must ensure a climate in our military where sexual assault is in no way — either officially or unofficially — condoned, ignored, or tolerated…While progress has been made in recent years, I don’t think any of us can say our work is complete.”

Ranking Member Christopher Shays (R-CT) stated, “Years of inaction at the DoD continue to speak volumes about senior leadership commitment to our service members and civil servants. Our military’s greatest challenge should be on the battlefield, not protecting its members from being sexually assaulted. The subcommittee understands that sexual assault is a problem within DoD and within our society. This should not be an excuse for DoD, but a reason for extra effort…The DoD has run out of excuses. When it comes to sexual assault in the military, DoD has no absolutely no credibility.”

On the first panel, Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) discussed “the bipartisan legislation that Congressman [Mike] Turner [R-OH] and I have introduced to help halt [rape and sexual assault] in the military.” The legislation, H. Con. Res. 397, expresses “the sense of the Congress that the secretary of Defense should develop a comprehensive strategy to increase and encourage investigation and prosecution of sexual assault and rape cases in the military.” Rep. Harman said, “At the heart of this crisis is an apparent inability or unwillingness to prosecute rapists in the ranks. According to the DoD’s [Department of Defense] own statistics, a mere 181 out of 2,212 subjects — or eight percent — investigated for sexual assault in 2007 were referred to court martial…This is in stark contrast to the civil justice system, where 40 percent of those arrested for rape are prosecuted, according to the Department of Justice and the FBI. The DoD must close this gap and remove the obstacles to effective investigation and prosecution.”

Also speaking on the first panel was Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), who stated that “Incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military undermine the solidarity and trust essential to the success of our military operations…those who enlist to serve expect to sacrifice their safety to protect Americans from foreign enemies [and do not] expect to have to defend themselves from fellow service members.” Rep. Slaughter cited several examples, including women “who had endured years of abuse at the Air Force Academy…In March 2004, as Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues, I held a hearing on this issue. I will never forget when one of the witnesses spoke about having to salute her rapist every day after the assault. She finally left the military.”

Rep. Slaughter continued, “Together, Congress and the Department of Defense have made strides in ensuring that the individuals serving in our military are protected from unwanted sexual advances. [Yet] we need a comprehensive approach to addressing sexual assault and harassment in the military. That is why I have reintroduced the Military Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Act (H.R. 3990). This important piece of legislation will ensure greater protections for service members and their families if they become victims of violence. It also will strengthen programs to prevent violence against fellow soldiers and military families…Our service members put themselves in harm’s way to protect us and our nation from threats at home and abroad. They should not be given lesser rights and protections than the civilians whose freedoms they protect.”

On the second panel, the subcommittee heard from two women whose lives have been affected by incidences of sexual violence in the military. Ingrid Torres was working as an assistant station manager for the American Red Cross and stationed at Kunsan Air Base in Korea when she was sexually assaulted by a military medical professional. Ms. Torres recommended that “the following five actions be undertaken as appropriate by the administration, the Department of Defense, and Congress: seriously review the SAPRO [Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office] program in each branch of service; change the SAPRO policy so civilians can make a restricted report in sexual assault cases; [s]tandardize the SAPRO program DoD-wide so that victims are cared for around the world in the same way; [r]eevaluate and update the prevention portion of SAPRO; and enact reforms, such as those proposed in H.R. 3990 or other similar legislation, which would enhance protections for civilians stationed on military bases overseas.” Ms. Torres added, “I appreciate the service of those that have answered their nation’s call to duty. I understand that most people serve honorably. But that does not negate the fact that there is a very large problem that must be dealt with effectively and decisively if we are to create a better military for the future.”

Mary Lauterbach, mother of Lance Corporal (LCPL) Maria Lauterbach, also testified. LCPL Lauterbach was raped by a fellow marine and subsequently murdered in December 2007 after reporting the assault. Stating that “I believe that Maria would be alive today if the Marines had provided a more effective system to protect victims of sexual assault, a more effective support program, and a more expeditious investigation and prosecution system.” Mrs. Lauterbach made several recommendations to the subcommittee, asserting that “the military needs more effective security measures, more effective victim advocates, more (and more effective) programs for sexual assault victims, and more expeditious prosecutions,” as well as “an absolute right to base transfer.” Mrs. Lauterbach concluded by stating, “Our country is committed to an all-volunteer military. To continue to attract women to the military, the military must demonstrate that it can protect them when they have been victims of sexual assault, that it can rehabilitate victims and return them as productive members of the military work force, and that the investigations provide the respect for victims that they already provide for the alleged perpetrators.”

For the final panel, the subcommittee heard from Lieutenant General (LTG) Michael D. Rochelle, deputy chief of staff G-1 for the United States Army. In discussing the Army’s SAPRO program, LTG Rochelle stated, “The goals of our Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program are to create a climate where soldiers live the Army values, thereby eliminating incidents of sexual assault; where soldiers feel they can report incidents when they do occur, without fear, knowing they will receive the help and care they deserve; and where offenders receive appropriate action.” LTG Rochelle subsequently outlined a “comprehensive prevention campaign” the Army is currently developing, which includes “addressing negative social influencers, increasing peer-to-peer bystander intervention, and enhancing soldiers’ skill sets on how to stop assaults before they occur.”

LTG Rochelle continued to delineate the steps the Army has taken to “combat sexual assault”, including the creation of the “Sexual Assault Data Management System (SADMS)…a system that integrates five authoritative sources from legal, medical, investigative, law enforcement, and advocacy services to provide a holistic case management record. The Army’s $2.8 million investment (to date) in the SADMS provides an assessment capability to conduct in-depth analysis of the SAPRO program, including both performance measures and data trends.” LTG Rochelle also discussed the Army’s “Sexual Assault Task Force and Sexual Harassment Task Force reports. Through the Army’s annual command program assessment reports and recommendations, our recent Inspector General Report, and our recurring analysis of sexual assault case data, we continuously reassess and improve our program.”

Brenda S. Farrell, director of Defense Capabilities and Management at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), discussed “preliminary observations” from “a report [issued] in January 2008 that reviewed programs to address sexual assault and sexual harassment at the military and Coast Guard Academies.” Among the main findings of the study were: “DoD’s guidance may not adequately address some important issues, such as how to implement its program in deployed or joint environments; most, but not all, commanders support the programs; program coordinators’ effectiveness can be hampered when program management is a collateral duty; required sexual assault prevention and response training is not consistently effective; and factors, such as the DoD-reported shortage of mental health care providers, affect whether service members who are victims of sexual assault can or do access mental health services.” Ms. Farrell added, “We believe that DoD and the Coast Guard have taken positive steps to prevent, respond to, and resolve reported incidents of sexual assault. However, a number of challenges — such as limited guidance for implementing DoD’s policies in certain environments, some commanders’ limited support and limited resources for the programs, training that is not consistently effective, limited access to mental health services, and a lack of an oversight framework — could undermine the effectiveness of some of their efforts. Left unchecked, these challenges could undermine DoD’s and the Coast Guard’s efforts by eroding service members’ confidence in the programs, decreasing the likelihood that sexual assault victims will turn to the programs for help when needed, or by limiting the ability of DoD and the Coast Guard to judge the overall successes, challenges, and lessons learned from their programs.”

In questioning the witnesses, several members spoke to the perceived need of the Victims’ Advocates (VAs) to be removed from the victim’s chain of command. Rep. Susan Davis (D-CA), chair of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, who was invited to join the Oversight Subcommittee for the hearing, noted, “These [victims] are teenagers…they don’t understand their rights. VAs need to be aggressive in encouraging them to know their rights…[and to be] proactive.” Rep. Shays agreed, stating, “We need an [authority] outside [of the] chain of command — a separate, independent body, because I don’t think the military is capable of dealing with [sexual assault].”

Also scheduled to testify on the third panel were Michael Dominguez, principal deputy undersecretary for Defense (Personnel and Readiness) and Dr. Kaye Whitley, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) at the DoD. Due to the committee’s concern over Dr. Whitley’s absence, Mr. Dominguez was dismissed from the panel before testifying.

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