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Jan. 19 (Bloomberg) -- The Pentagon is taking added steps to prevent sexual assault in the U.S. military and help victims as thousands of abuse cases go unreported, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said.
The Defense Department received 3,191 reports of sexual assault last year, Panetta said yesterday. That’s 1 percent more than the 3,158 reported in the previous fiscal year and a 19 percent increase over five years, according to an annual review released in March.
“Because we assume that this is a very underreported crime, the estimate is that the actual number is closer to 19,000,” Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon. “I deeply regret that such crimes occur in the U.S. military, and I will do all that I can to prevent these crimes from occurring.”
Among the new measures to stop what Panetta called an “unacceptable” number of sexual assaults, the military will require its sexual-assault response coordinators and victim advocates to obtain nationally recognized certification and will extend confidential reporting and victim-support services to spouses and dependents.
The increase in filed reports may be due partly to victims being more aware of their rights and more willing to come forward, according to Air Force Major General Mary Kay Hertog, director of the Pentagon’s sexual-assault prevention and response office.
The estimate of 19,000 assaults is based on a survey of active-duty personnel cited in the Pentagon’s 2010 annual report. A similar survey four years earlier generated an estimate of 34,000, indicating the rate of incidents may be dropping, according to Hertog.
‘Waste of Time’
The department includes cases from rape to wrongful sexual contact as defined by the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Panetta’s planned changes fall short, according to former Marine Corps Captain Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the New York-based Service Women’s Action Network. An order to conduct an assessment of how to improve training of commanders is “a waste of time,” Bhagwati said in an e-mailed statement.
“Commander influence is the crux of this problem,” Bhagwati said. “Military law today requires that the officers directly in charge of offenders decide how these cases are handled. It creates a clear conflict of interest.”
Sexual assault at the three major military academies rose 58 percent for the academic year 2010-11 compared with the previous year, according to a separate report last month. The department said that may be due partly to steps the academies took to encourage victims to report assaults.
The Defense Department has promised for years to improve its prevention measures and victim services. Hertog, a two-star officer, was named director in August.
The department’s inspector general failed to develop policies and didn’t begin overseeing sexual-assault investigations and related training as ordered to do in June 2006 “primarily because it believes it has other, higher priorities,” according to a June report from the Government Accountability Office.
The inspector general “disagreed with the characterization,” according to the GAO, which said it stood by the conclusions.
Judge advocates have said a 2007 amendment to the Uniform Code of Military Justice complicates prosecutions and may be causing unwarranted acquittals, according to the GAO.
Still ‘Big Issues’
The move to extend support services to spouses and other dependents was an action ordered by Congress, and the need for certification of coordinators and advocates has long been discussed, said Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington.
“Obviously there’s still some big issues that have to be addressed,” Campbell said yesterday in an interview.
Advocates have pressed to hold military unit leaders accountable in their performance evaluations and promotions for fostering a climate that prevents assault and deals promptly when cases arise, she said.
The Pentagon’s 2010 annual report cited possible signs of improvement. The survey showed 4.4 percent of active-duty women and 0.9 percent of active-duty men had experienced an assault, compared with 6.8 percent of women and 1.8 percent of men four years earlier.
Panetta said he has increased funding to provide specialized training for investigators and judge advocates. The Pentagon also will ensure that its civilians stationed abroad and U.S. citizens who are contractors in combat areas receive emergency care and aid from a response coordinator and victim advocate, he said.
--Editors: Larry Liebert, Jim Rubin.
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