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Pentagon defends handling of sexual assaults

Defense Department officials told a congressional panel Wednesday that sexual assaults in the military have been cut in half in recent years,  responding to criticism from lawmakers who say the Pentagon's is not doing enough to address the problem.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sexual assaults in the military have been cut in half in recent years, the Pentagon said Wednesday, responding to criticism from lawmakers who say the Defense Department is not doing enough to address the issue.

“No war comes without costs, but the costs should be borne out of conflict with the enemy, not by egregious violations by some of our own troops,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel, said new figures show the rate of sexual assaults against women in the military fell from 6 percent to 3 percent between 1995 and 2002.

“It’s still too high, there’s still a long way to go, but it’s down substantially from where we were,” Chu told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee.

He said the most progress needs to be made in providing care to victims.

Pentagon officials said there have been 106 reports of sexual assault of troops deployed in the Middle East — including Iraq and Afghanistan — over the past 14 months.

Investigations under way
In the Army, there have been 86 reported cases. Investigations have concluded in about half, and 14 courts-martial have been filed. Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey Jr. said investigations are harder to conduct when done in the midst of a military operation.

One of those cases involved Barbara Wharton’s daughter. She was stationed with the Stryker Brigade outside Iraq last November when she was knocked unconscious by an unknown attacker after getting off guard duty in the early morning hours.

Wharton’s daughter awoke stripped, bound and gagged. Doctors determined she was raped, but Wharton told the committee in a statement that minimal effort was taken to find her daughter’s attacker. Her daughter was moved out of her unit, her requests to meet with a psychologist rejected and she eventually attempted suicide.

Wharton said her daughter was returned to the U.S., but felt “abandoned” by her commanders.

“Just because I came back with all four limbs intact, they’re treating me like I’m faking,” the daughter said, according to Wharton. “I feel like my chain of command betrayed me. I gave four years to that unit and I feel like it kicked me in the teeth when I was down.”

Christine Hansen, executive director of the Connecticut-based Miles Foundation, a support group for military victims of domestic and sexual violence, said 68 women, most of them officers, contacted her organization with stories of sexual assaults at the hands of fellow members of the military. At least 13 had also reported the assaults to military officials.

Rumsfeld requests review of policies
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has asked for a review of sexual assault policies and the victim support network throughout the department. He asked for a report by the beginning of May.

One change under review is having standard policies on sexual assaults in all the military branches and providing uniform services to victims, Chu said.

The inquiry was prompted by stories in The Denver Post that thousands of sex offenders in the military had escaped punishment and numerous women’s claims of sexual assault and rape were dismissed or mishandled by commanders.

The allegations were similar to stories told by Air Force Academy cadets, which prompted a purge of the academy’s commanders and sweeping changes. An Air Force investigation identified 142 reported cases of sexual assault in a 10-year period.

The Air Force also dispatched a task force to Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, to probe claims of between 20 and 25 sexual assaults in the 2002-03 federal budget year.

Of the 5,035 people surveyed and 1,000 interviewed, at least 90 percent were confident the processes in place, felt safe at the base and had confidence in base commanders, said the Air Force’s vice chief of staff, Michael Moseley.

Gen. William Nyland, assistant Marine Corps commandant, told lawmakers that sexual assault violates “the deeply held values of the corps and the military as a whole and will not be tolerated.”

The chairman of the Senate Armed Services said senators will be supportive of the Pentagon’s reform efforts and watching them closely.

“This committee is prepared to back the United States military to achieve zero tolerance,” said Sen. John Warner, R-Va. “We’re here to support you and if you don’t carry it out, we’re going to take over.”