By Lisa Daniel, American Forces Press ServiceApril 18, 2012
WASHINGTON (April 18, 2012) -- The Pentagon's top civilian and military leaders took their campaign to stop sexual assault in the military to Capitol Hill, Monday, where they announced new initiatives to combat the problem.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with reporters after meeting with three members of the House of Representatives who are working on the issue.
"General Dempsey and I consider this a serious problem that needs to be addressed," Panetta said. "It violates everything the U.S. military stands for."
Panetta and Dempsey met with Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California, Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, and Rep. Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts. Sanchez chairs the Caucus on Women in the Military, while Turner and Tsongas co-chair the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus.
"Service members and their families must feel secure enough to report this crime without fear of retribution, and commanders must hold offenders appropriately accountable," the secretary said.
One Defense Department initiative will elevate the level of investigation for the most serious sexual assault allegations. Local unit commanders will be required to report allegations of rape, forcible sodomy and sexual assault, as well as attempts of those offenses, to a special court-martial convening authority, usually a colonel or Navy captain.
That change will ensure that sexual assault cases receive high-level attention and that cases remain in the chain of command, Panetta said.
The initiatives also include:
-- Establishing with congressional approval a "special victims' unit" within each service composed of specially trained experts in evidence collection, interviewing and working with victims;
-- Requiring that sexual assault policies be explained to all service members within 14 days of their entry into active duty;
-- Allowing National Guard and Reserve personnel who have been sexually assaulted to remain on active duty status to obtain the treatment and support afforded to active-duty members;
-- Requiring a record of the outcome of disciplinary and administrative proceedings related to sexual assault and retaining the records centrally;
-- Requiring commanders to conduct annual organizational climate assessments to measure whether they are meeting the department's goal of a culture of professionalism and zero tolerance of sexual assault;
-- Enhancing training programs for sexual assault prevention, including training for new military commanders in handling sexual assault matters; and
-- Mandating wider public dissemination of available sexual assault resources, such as DOD's "Safe Helpline," a 24/7 helpline via Web, phone or text message operated by the nonprofit Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network.
The helpline, which assisted more than 770 people between April and September last year, is available at 877-995-5247 or http://www.safehelpline.org.
The initiatives build on others announced in the past year that include appointing a two-star general to head the department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, and expanding legal assistance to military spouses and adult military dependents.
Panetta called the changes "a strong package," but he added that "there is no silver bullet." All military leaders at every level must understand that they have a responsibility to stop sexual assault, he said.
Dempsey said he agrees with the changes because the crime of sexual assault erodes the trust associated with being in the U.S. military.
"We must send the signal that this is not a problem we are going to ignore," Panetta said.