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In Preventing Sexual Assault, Military Must ‘Go Beyond Training’

With sexual assaults in the military on the rise, Congress and Defense Department officials debate what should be done to prosecute perpetrators and prevent assaults from happening in the first place. Kwame Holman reports on efforts to subdue the crisis.

As White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, Lynn Rosenthal is closely involved in the effort to get the U.S. military services to “exponentially step up their game” against sexual assaults in the ranks as President Barack Obama demanded early this month.

“We’re anxious to see the services get that message to every single level,” Rosenthal told the PBS NewsHour Wednesday.

The Defense Department survey released this month showing instances of unwanted sexual contact within the services rose by more than 35 percent from 2010 to 2012 — to some 26,000 incidents — still reverberates at the Pentagon, the White House and in Congress with members of all the institutions promising action.

The survey estimated 12,100 of the 203,000 active duty women and 13,900 of 1.2 million men on active duty were sexually assaulted. But fewer than 3,400 victims were willing to come forward and report the crimes to their chains of command.

Rosenthal said sharp statements from Mr. Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in reaction to the report can have an effect on the problem even though it has had such long standing in the military.

“The president has [said] he has no tolerance for this. The secretary has said he has no tolerance for this. So they are setting the tone from the top,” Rosenthal said by phone while vacationing in Massachusetts. “I think while cultural change takes some time most immediately you can set the tone and the standards of conduct and the expectation.”

And Rosenthal said the alarming survey results from last year may already have been overtaken by initiatives since then against sexual assault.

“Last year, [former] Secretary Panetta put in place some very significant reforms some of which came into play in the last quarter of the year and so they wouldn’t have been reflected in the 2012 survey results,” she said. “We’re anxious to see those reforms fully implemented. Particularly, for example, standardized core competencies and standardized training for command.”

Among other steps undertaken by the Pentagon are improvements to health care services provided to victims of sexual assault and standardizing the collection of forensic evidence of the crimes.

New protections for victims against harassment after reporting a rape or other assault also have been announced.

Meanwhile at the Capitol Thursday, a group of Democrats and Republicans from both chambers introduced legislation that would require dishonorable discharges of service members convicted of sexual assault and that would provide better legal assistance to victims.

After a news conference on the bill, Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, a co-sponsor, said in a brief interview, “We’ve got to have a series of dishonorable discharges and successful prosecutions that send a really clear message to everyone that this can’t be tolerated.”

Collins also is part of another bipartisan group that wants military commanders to lose their current authority to decide whether sexual assault cases go to court martial, giving that job to independent military prosecutors instead.

Many in the military high command have strongly resisted that idea, saying commanders can solve the problem and should be given time to do so.

Collins is not so sure.

“The military — because it excels at training — always thinks the answer to everything is training. In this case, we’ve got to go beyond training,” she said.

“I want faster action and I want results. And I don’t want to just leave it up to the military to make the changes because I’ve heard this for years. The fact is I’m not seeing change. And the best example of that is when the sexual assault prevention officer turns out to be involved in sexual l assault. It’s just mindboggling.”

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