Defense Department

Defense faces lawsuit from sexual assault victims

Lawmakers grill the department on hazing, lack of diversity.

The Defense Department is under fire this week, with several sources alleging its failure to address sexual assault, hazing and its lack of diversity.

Eight women -- seven veterans and one current service member -- filed a lawsuit Tuesday against current and former military leaders, the Associated Press reported.

Seven of the women said a comrade raped or attempted to sexually assault them during their service in the Navy or Marine Corps, while one woman said during her deployment to Iraq she suffered harassment and threats. Several said they had a superior dismiss their complaints, or they suffered retaliation after coming forward.

The suit, filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, says the Defense Department has not done enough to tackle the problem of sexual assault and has created a hostile environment that discourages sexual assault victims from reporting incidents and punishes those who do.

"This is the year 2012. This kind of conduct is not acceptable,” said Susan Burke, a lawyer representing the eight women.

In an attempt to address such problems, Defense earlier this year introduced several initiatives, including one for implementing a sexual assault advocate certification program and another requiring victim advocates and response coordinators at the department to obtain credentials that meet national standards.

After a December 2011 report found a sharply higher number of sexual assaults at military academies, Defense announced two policy changes to allow victims of sexual assault to request an expedited transfer from their unit or installation, and to standardize the retention period for sexual assault records and make them available to victims.

Cynthia Smith, a Defense spokeswoman, reiterated these recent measures and said that the department has a zero-tolerance policy, but she could not comment on the suit.

"It is important that everyone in uniform be alert to the problem and have the leadership training to help prevent these crimes," she said in a statement.

Congress, meanwhile, is calling into question Defense’s efforts to prevent harassment and increase diversity, The Washington Post reported.

At a joint-congressional forum on Tuesday, lawmakers questioned Defense leaders on their lack of progress in implementing the recommendations of the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, which found that minorities are underrepresented in armed forces leadership. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., noted the services have more than half the recommendations still under review. “It sounds like there’s been a lot of talk, but not enough action,” he said.

Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., angrily confronted Defense leaders for failing to take harassment and hazing seriously and stated the services do not punish violators adequately.

Chu’s nephew, Marine Lance Cpl. Harry Lew, committed suicide in Afghanistan in April after alleged physical harassment from his fellow Marines.

“Any claims that hazing incidents are isolated are unfounded,” Chu said.

Clarence Johnson, director of the Defense Department’s Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity, told lawmakers the Pentagon is doing its best to combat hazing.

“The department’s policy prohibiting hazing is unambiguous,” Johnson said. “It is contrary to good order and discipline and is unacceptable behavior.”