WASHINGTON (Jan. 18, 2012) -- Sexual assault has no place in the Defense Department, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said today, calling the crime "a stain on the good honor of the great majority of our troops and their families."
Panetta announced four initiatives today designed to aid victims and strengthen prosecution of military sexual assault cases. He said a "broader package of proposals" soon will follow two new sexual assault policies the department announced in late December.
"When I was sworn into the office of secretary of defense, I said that I had no higher responsibility than to protect those who are protecting America," Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon. "Our men and women in uniform put their lives on the line every day to try to keep America safe. We have a moral duty to keep them safe from those who would attack their dignity and their honor."
The secretary said 3,191 sexual assaults were reported in the military last year, but because historically only a fraction of such crimes are reported, the true incidence of sexual assault likely approaches 19,000.
Troops willing to fight and die for their country "are entitled to much better protection," he said.
Some of the proposals rolled out in coming months may require legislative action, the secretary said, but he noted he already has worked with department, Joint Staff and service leaders to develop and launch four approaches aimed at strengthening victim care and protection.
"First, I've directed the establishment of a DOD sexual assault advocate certification program, which will require our sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates to obtain a credential aligned with national standards," Panetta said. "This will help ensure the victims of sexual assault receive the best care from properly trained and credentialed professionals who can provide crucial assistance from the moment an assault is committed."
The secretary said he also has directed DOD to expand assault victim support to include military spouses and adult military dependents, who can now file confidential reports and receive the services of a victim advocate and a sexual assault response coordinator. "This was not the case before," he added.
"In addition, we're going to ensure that DOD civilians stationed abroad and DOD U.S. citizen contractors in combat areas receive emergency care and the help of a response coordinator and victim advocate," Panetta said.
The secretary's third approach increases training funds for investigators and judge advocates, "because sexual assault cases are some of the toughest cases to investigate and prosecute," he said. Officials said the funding increase is $9.3 million over five years.
The department also is creating an integrated data system to track sexual assault reports and monitor case management, Panetta added, "so that we'll have a comprehensive database for information available later this year."
Panetta said his fourth current effort against sexual assault in the military focuses on prevention and leader training.
"Our leaders in uniform -- officers and enlisted -- are on the front lines of the effort," he said. "They have to be. We must all be leaders here. For this reason, I'm directing an assessment, due in 120 days, on how we train our commanding officers and senior enlisted leaders on sexual assault prevention and response, and what we can do to strengthen that training."
The secretary also summarized two new policies announced Dec. 27.
"The first … gives victims who report a sexual assault an option to quickly transfer from their unit or installation, to protect them from possible harassment and remove them from proximity to the alleged perpetrator," he said. Defense officials explained this option is available only to service members who file unrestricted reports of sexual assault.
A restricted report, which is confidential, allows a victim to seek medical aid and counseling, but is not communicated to the chain of command.
Service members who file a transfer request under the new policy are entitled to a response from their unit commander within 72 hours, officials said. If the request is denied, service members can appeal to a general or flag officer or senior civilian in the chain of command and receive a response within an additional 72 hours.
The second policy requires that written, unrestricted reports of sexual assault to law enforcement officials be retained for 50 years, Panetta said. "The reason for that is to have these records available so that it will make it easier for veterans to file a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs at a later date," he explained.
Records relating to restricted reports will be retained for five years, officials said.
The secretary said the new policies and other initiatives are important steps, but he is determined sexual assault response and prevention will remain a top priority.
"There's much more work to be done to prevent this crime, and we will be announcing additional initiatives over the coming weeks and months," Panetta said.
The secretary addressed his closing remarks directly to military victims of sexual assault.
"I deeply regret that such crimes occur in the U.S. military," Panetta said. "And I will do all I can to prevent these sexual assaults from occurring in the Department of Defense. I'm committed to providing you the support and resources you need and to taking whatever steps are necessary to keep what happened to you from happening to others."