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Sexual Assault in the Military Focus of Senate Hearing

On February 25, the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel held a hearing to examine current policies and programs on sexual assault in the military. Earlier this month, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered a Department of Defense (DoD) policy review in response to recent reports of sexual misconduct against military women deployed in combat.

Chair Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) expressed the subcommittee’s “deep concern about the problem of violence against women in the Armed Forces.” He said the subcommittee has received reports of “shocking percentages of sexual assaults suffered by women in uniform.” Sen. Chambliss stated, “Clearly, the adequacy of the policies, programs, and resources with DoD and the Services to respond to this problem are at issue.”

Ranking Member Ben Nelson (D-NE) agreed, noting that there is an “apparent failure of our military systems to respond appropriately to the needs of victims.” He quoted recent articles in the Denver Post and USA Today, which blame the military for “mishandling sexual assault cases by discouraging victims from pursuing complaints,” and mentioned the Pentagon’s report of “at least 88 cases of sexual misconduct…by troops in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan.” Sen. Nelson acknowledged that task forces are investigating these matters, but added, “I am concerned because I do not feel a sense of outrage by military leadership.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) denounced the “egregious violations by some of our troops.” She said, “We must take these allegations seriously. We must ensure that justice is swift and certain for the criminals who have perpetrated these crimes.”

Testifying for the DoD, Dr. David Chu assured the subcommittee that “sexual assault is criminal conduct and will not be tolerated in the Department of Defense.” He defended the department’s efforts, citing a 2002 department survey indicating a decline from 6 percent to 3 percent in sexual assaults of women in uniform. The survey also found a 10 percent improvement in “honest and reasonable efforts to stop sexual harassment.” Dr. Chu stated, “Prevention is the pre-eminent objective.”

Dr. Chu said that he has established a task force that is already engaged in response to Secretary Rumsfeld’s requested policy review. He confirmed that “the plan includes field review within the combat theater of operations.” Dr. Chu also listed the punishments for sexual assault and sexual harassment as defined by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, assuring the subcommittee that “the Department has…strong and effective policies for dealing with offender accountability.”

Admiral Michael Mullen described the Navy’s Sexual Assault Victim Intervention (SAVI) Program. “The goal of the SAVI program,” he said, “is to provide a comprehensive, standardized, gender-neutral, victim-sensitive system to first, prevent, and second, respond, to sexual assault throughout the Navy.” Admiral Mullen stated that the SAVI program features “multiple avenues for victims to report, seek appropriate criminal investigation, and receive support, advocacy and intervention services.” Admiral Mullen noted a higher risk for sexual assault in the junior ranks, and mentioned alcohol as a “contributing factor.” He stressed the importance of “fostering the culture that protects victims of sexual assault,” and the need for “constant vigilance.”

A second panel of experts dealing with military victims of sexual assault testified. Christine Hansen of The Miles Foundation cited a Veterans’ Administration (VA) survey that indicates “one third of female service members deployed during Desert Storm and Desert Shield were challenged by physical sexual harassment…a ten fold increase above the civilian rate during the same time period.” She also noted the correlation “between sexual and domestic violence among the ranks.”

Ms. Hansen asked the military “not to reinvent the wheel, but rather to build upon an existing program within the military departments; and to adopt the best professional practices within the civilian community, such as sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs).” She also proposed a centralized Office of the Victim Advocate, which would improve and coordinate services between the military and civilian communities.

Deborah Tucker of the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence pointed to the need to change “attitudes about women that underlie violence against women.” She said the most important factor in improving victim care is ensuring that the victim “is believed and treated with respect at the time when she steps forward.” Ms. Tucker highlighted the importance of confidentiality, adding that “this is difficult for the military to understand.”

Speaking on behalf of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), Dr. Susan Mather explained that the VHA “has been aware of the issue for women since at least 1991 when there were reports of sexual abuse among women who served in the Gulf War.” At that time, a VA survey cited “attempted or completed sexual assault” among 8 percent of female Gulf war veterans. “It is important to note that the National Victim Center has estimated that only 16 percent of rape cases are ever reported, and it is generally agreed that the crime is underreported in military, as well as civilian life,” Dr. Mather said. She outlined the VA’s program: “The key components are awareness, education, outreach, sensitivity training, screening and treatment. An education program to train primary care and other practitioners about the prevalence, screening, referral and treatment for military sexual trauma is ongoing.” Dr. Mather said that the VA has found that having a woman contact for victims is very helpful.

To improve the military response to the issue, Sen. Chambliss proposed standardizing policies across the services. Dr. Chu said that the “basic structure” already exists in the areas of criminal justice, health care, and education. Ms. Hansen agreed with the proposal, saying that standardized care would provide a greater comfort level for the victim.

Sen. Collins voiced her concern that a military victim of sexual assault faces “far more obstacles” than a civilian, and that the rate of incidents appears to be higher in the military. Dr. Chu acknowledged “different circumstances” for military and civilian society, but said that this takes “time, effort, and perseverance.” He stated, “We will find solutions.”

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