WASHINGTON, March 3, 2009 - The Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military Services is interested in talking with victims of sexual assault worldwide to gain understanding about their experience with the military's response to the incident.

These interviews are a critical part of the task force's yearlong, worldwide assessment of response to sexual assault throughout the Defense Department, said Jenny Holbert, a task force spokeswoman.

"We need to understand their experiences at the individual level," she said. "We want to focus on the response by [whomever the assault was first reported].

"What happened' Were the services needed to help them appropriate' Were the services on installation or off the installation'" she said, explaining what kinds of information the task force was trying to discern.

The task force is interested in hearing both from members of the military who were victims of sexual assault and civilians who were victimized by servicemembers, she said.

Those willing to talk with the task force can do so by calling 888-325-6640 or sending an e-mail to assist@wso.whs.mil, and leaving a message. Someone from the task force will call to set up an interview, Holbert said. Interviews also can be conducted in person if the task force happens to be visiting an installation.

Because victims often feel more comfortable talking confidentially, the task force's final report to Congress will not identify individuals or installations. This is especially important, because the members also want to hear from victims who never reported their assaults, Holbert said.

"We need to maintain their privacy and their confidentiality in order for them to have enough confidence in us to come talk to us," Holbert said. "It's their choice. It's their option. They are in control, [and] they decide how they want to do this."

The military's goal is to eradicate sexual assault, she said. In the interest of determining best practices to work toward that goal, the task force is honing in on three specific areas through these interviews.

The first is prevention of sexual assault.

"One of the best ways to eradicate sexual assault is [through] training -- making people aware ... what is sexual assault and how to prevent it in the first place," Holbert said. "The second piece to that is response.

"[The task force wants to know] what resources are in place, the legal process, the spiritual process, how that all takes place," she said.

The third piece is accountability. The members want to know whether the judicial process is working, and that everything needed to investigate, conduct courts-martial and convict the guilty is in place.

The other side of that is the victim, Holbert added. The task force is looking at the resources available to victims to ensure they are the best available.

The military has a tremendous opportunity to reduce the problem of sexual assault, based on its past handling of social issues such as gender and racial integration, she said.

"They've led the nation, they've led our culture, in changing the way people deal with each other," Holbert said. "I think this is another opportunity for the Department of Defense to take care of one of this nation's greatest assets, and that's our military personnel."

Once the assessment phase is complete at the end of June, the task force will prepare its report and present it to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates for his comments before it goes to the House and Senate armed services committees.