Pentagon chided for failure to prevent sexual assaults

Lawmakers criticized the Pentagon Thursday for not doing enough to prevent sexual assaults among troops.

"I am concerned that over the past 15 years DoD has been confronted with several major sexual assault and misconduct incidents," Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Total Force, said during a hearing on the issue. "Despite lessons learned and calls for corrective action, many of the same problems identified in early investigations appear to remain unresolved with sexual assaults continuing to plague the military at alarming rates."

McHugh said that during the past 15 years, there have been more than 18 Defense Department reviews on sexual assault.

"How do we begin to reassure women we are serious this time?" McHugh asked.

In February Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called for a 90-day review of the military's policies and procedures for preventing and responding to sexual assaults after more than 100 assault allegations were reported over 18 months in Central Command, which includes Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan.

The report found about 70 allegations of sexual assault per every 100,000 military members. A similar internal review by the Army, whose results were first published by the Washington Post Thursday, showed allegations of sexual assaults within the service rising steadily over the past five years.

Ellen Embrey, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for force health protection, who led the review, outlined the Defense task force's findings for the committee, including:

  • Commanders are concerned about sexual assault, but they are not educated, trained or sensitive to victims' needs.
  • Victims' support services varied widely among the armed forces and were largely inadequate.
  • Defense lacks accountability for sexual assaults because there is no single system for reporting and responding to allegations.

David Chu, undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, told lawmakers that the Pentagon was taking several immediate steps to prevent and better respond to sexual assault, among them:

  • Raising the issue at a recent meeting of the military's four-star combatant commanders and requiring them to discuss preventing and reporting sexual assaults with their subordinates.
  • Creating a single office at the Pentagon within the next few weeks that will coordinate sexual assault policy.
  • Convening a summit by the end of the summer to create common policies among the services.
  • Developing a Defense-wide reporting system for assault allegations by the end of the year.

Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., said the Defense Department is not organized to support victims of sexual abuse. She voiced concern that sexual assault training is provided when troops enter the force, but there is little follow-up as military members move through the ranks and become leaders.

Sanchez also urged the Pentagon to update the Uniform Code of Military Justice's rules that govern sexual assault, which were written in the 1950s. She says the military should follow federal sexual assault laws, which were updated in the 1980s with expanded definitions of assault and better protection for victims.

Chu said the Pentagon would undertake a "serious review" of sexual assault rules in the Uniformed Code of Military Justice.