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Senate Subcommittee Holds Hearing on Defense Health Programs; Questions Military Response to Sexual Assault

On March 18, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense held a hearing on Department of Defense (DoD) health programs. At the conclusion of the first panel, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) asked the witnesses about the Fiscal 2008 Report on Sexual Assault in the Military released the day before. The report stated that 2,908 servicemembers reported a sexual assault in 2008, an eight percent increase over 2007.

Sen. Murray said, “Yesterday the DoD made public the FY2008 report on sexual assault in the military and it showed an eight percent increase in reports of sexual assault. Now, some are arguing that that increase illustrates the fact that servicemembers are more likely to report those crimes, but I find the increase very disturbing because these crimes are happening at all…Clearly we all support the goal of eliminating sexual assault in the military, but until that goal is achieved, I am very interested to hear from all of you how the medical community is supporting the efforts to care for these victims’, both [their] physical and psychological wounds.”

Lieutenant General Eric Schoomaker, surgeon general of the Army, noted that sexual assault is not just an attack on the servicemember but on the “warrior ethos” and that such behavior is not tolerated. LTG Schoomaker described the medical services that the Army provides, including “helping a woman through the stages of forensic evaluation,” sexual assault response coordinators in Army medical facilities, including active duty settings, leveraging the expertise of civilian community resources near Army installations, and ongoing mental health counseling services.

Vice Admiral Adam Robinson, Jr., surgeon general of the Navy, discussed the Sexual Assault Victim Intervention (SAVI) Program, which was established in 1994. He said the Navy assists in the training of SAVI counselors and emphasizes the “critical element” of getting the victim to understand the programs and services to which they are entitled. VADM Robinson also noted the importance of training the forensic experts and recommended greater use of civilian training modules and facilities. He said that education programs need to ask and answer important questions such as: “What is sexual assault? What does consent mean? What does ‘yes’ mean? What does ‘no’ mean? All of these types of things need to be taught and listened to [by servicemembers].” He closed his remarks by saying that not only does the victim need to be cared for, but his or her family and spouse also need counseling and support services.

“The fact that there is one [instance of sexual assault] is too many,” said Lieutenant General James Roudebush, Air Force surgeon general. “We learned important lessons as we assessed the issues at our Air Force Academy, which we have implemented across the board in terms of programs that work to prevent sexual assault, but if it occurs we respond in a very sensitive and coordinated way.” Similar to the Army and Navy, the Air Force has a sexual assault response coordinator at every installation, and conducts ongoing education and outreach to troops.

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