Responding to intense pressure from Capitol Hill, the Pentagon today unveiled a series of new steps aimed at curbing the epidemic of sexual assault in the military.
At a news conference, senior Pentagon officials said they would immediately offer legal help to sexual assault victims, guarantee that all pre-trial hearings into sexual assault would be conducted by judge advocate general officers, and offer commanding officers the authority to protect victims by transferring the service member accused of the crime.
Although Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton and other lawmakers said the Pentagon’s plan falls short of what they believe is necessary, Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters that “we are all accountable to fix this problem and we will fix it together.’’
Jessica L. Wright, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness said that “the bottom line is sexual assault is not tolerated, not condoned, it’s not ignored and everyone in the department from the newest enlistee to the secretary of defense and everyone in between are responsible to uphold our values and continue an environment of dignity and respect for all.’’
The Pentagon has faced mounting criticism because of its inability to stop or at least dramatically reduce the thousands of cases of sexual assault that take place every year. The Department of Defense acknowledged that there were 26,000 cases of sexual assault in the military last year.
In particular, the Pentagon has tried to devise a system where victims of sexual assault – who for the most part have been women soldiers – could safely report the attacks and not have to continue serving in the same unit with the soldier accused of the assault.
“All of these measures will provide victims with additional rights, protections and legal support and help ensure that sexual assault related investigations and judicial proceedings are conducted thoroughly and professionally,’’ Little said.
“Sexual assault is a stain on the honor of our men and women who serve our country as well as a threat to the discipline and the cohesion of our force,’’ he said. “It must be stamped out.’’
White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement that “the initiatives announced today are substantial, but only a step along a path toward eliminating this crime from our military ranks.’’
Carney said that President Barack Obama “expects this level of effort to be sustained not only in the coming weeks and months, but as far into the future as necessary.’’
Turner, a member of the House Armed Services Committee who has led an effort to reduce sexual assault in the military, said he was “glad’’ that the Pentagon was “beginning to talk about sexual assault as a crime,’’ but he said senior Defense officials are “very far from recognizing the grave problem they have at’’ at the Pentagon.
Turner said he was “not confident’’ that the Defense Department “understands what needs to be done,’’ adding that the new plan “does not go far enough, but it’s definitely a start.’’
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., described the Pentagon’s announcement as “positive steps,’’ but she said “it is not the leap forward required to solve the problem.’’
“As we have heard over and over again from the victims, and the top military leadership themselves, there is a lack of trust in the system that has a chilling effect on reporting. 302 prosecutions out of an estimated 26,000 cases just isn’t good enough under any metric,’’ Gillibrand said in a statement. “It is time for Congress to seize the opportunity, listen to the victims and create an independent, objective and non-biased military justice system worthy of our brave men and women’s service.”
(Jessica Wehrman of the Washington bureau contributed to this story.)