Sexual Assault in the Military Underreported

Women serving in the military today “are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than to be killed by enemy fire in Iraq,” Representative Jane Harman (D-CA) charged at a contentious House hearing in late July at which the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that rape and sexual assault in the military may be under-reported by as much as half. In August, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) called for an investigation into the way the Pentagon is handling sexual assaults of servicemembers.

The GAO survey at 14 military installations found that 103 servicemembers said they had been sexually assaulted in the last year, and 52 did not report their assaults. The reasons for the non-reporting were that servicemembers believed nothing would be done about it, or they feared being ostracized or ridiculed for coming forward, becoming the subject of gossip, or having their careers harmed as a result of reporting.

The GAO’s preliminary report also found serious problems in implementation of the sexual assault prevention and response programs run by the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Coast Guard.

The same day it was released, the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s national security and foreign affairs panel held a hearing on sexual violence in the military at which Dr. Kaye Whitley, Director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, was barred from testifying by a more senior officer, despite a subpoena to do so.

Deputy Defense Undersecretary Michael Dominguez angered House leaders by refusing to allow Dr. Whitley to testify. Dominguez told lawmakers he knew everything about the program, and therefore Whitley was not needed.

Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) responded, “I don’t know who you think elected you to defy the Congress of the United States,” reports ABC News. Ranking member Chris Shays (R-CT) vowed to support Chairman Waxman’s effort to hold the two in contempt.

Mary Lauterbach, the mother of the murdered, pregnant Marine Maria Lauterbach, did testify before the House panel. She told lawmakers that the military must change the way it deals with sexual assault. “I believe Maria would be alive today if the Marine system had been different,” she testified.

A week after the hearing, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton called for an investigation into the Pentagon’s handling of sexual assaults of servicemembers. In a letter to Carl Levin, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Clinton requested a public hearing to examine the new GAO findings. “I am deeply concerned by the Pentagon’s inadequate response to sexual assaults on our troops and the administration’s unwillingness to answer questions about this important issue,” she wrote. “Servicemembers who brave so many dangers while defending our nation deserve better.”

Other Findings

The GAO report also found that the DOD has failed to provide adequate guidance on implementing sexual assault prevention and response programs, leaving many servicemembers at greater risk for assault.

Most, but not all commanders support the new sexual assault prevention and response programs. Commanders play a critical role in the system and when they are not supportive, personnel under their command may have less information about sexual assault prevention and response policies, and less access to remedies. They also will have a more limited understanding of options for reporting assaults – restricted reporting, which allows a victim to confidentially disclose an alleged sexual assault without initiating a criminal investigation, and unrestricted reporting, which results in an investigation.

“Although the DOD and the Coast Guard have established some mechanisms for overseeing reports of sexual assault, neither has developed an oversight framework – including clear objectives, milestones, performance measures, and criteria for measuring progress – to guide their efforts,” the GAO’s report finds. It also concluded that the military does not have adequate mental health resources to treat victims of sexual assault.

In 2004, Congress required the Secretary of Defense to develop a comprehensive policy for the DOD on the prevention of and response to sexual assaults involving members of the Armed Forces.

Preliminary Observations on DOD’s and the Coast Guard’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Programs is available at, www.gao.gov/new.items/d081013t.pdf. The full report is expected later this month.

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