Today, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the Pentagon will revise its policies addressing sexual assault in the military and made it clear in a press conference that reducing assault and providing adequate care to victims would be a top priority.
Panetta reported that there were 3,191 reported sexual assault cases in the military last year, but acknowledged that because such crimes are rarely reported, the number could be as high as 19,000. The new policies will make it easier for victims to report crimes and transfer from their units if necessary, ensure that documents are retained long enough for victims to have access to them and provide more resources to train victim advocates, investigators and lawyers.
The ACLU has been fighting to ensure that all of those who serve our country can do so safely and with dignity, and that they have access to the same avenues of justice as any other victim of sexual assault. In December 2010 we filed a lawsuit seeking government records documenting incidents of sexual assault and what had been done for the victims. In 2008, the Department of Veterans Affairs found that more than 48,000 female veterans suffer from military sexual trauma (MST). Victims who report MST commonly face stigma and retribution. Superiors in the chain of command are charged with investigating reports and have little incentive to document assaults that could reflect poorly on leadership evaluations. In the end, only 8 percent of alleged perpetrators are prosecuted. After they leave the service, veterans face enormous obstacles in obtaining medical care and disability compensation connected to sexual assault.
Additionally, the ACLU has been working to ensure that women in uniform who are victims of sexual assault have access to the same health care as civilian women. An amendment that would have lifted the ban on abortion coverage for military women who become pregnant as a result of rape was blocked last year, but it has the support of many former and retired military officers, and we continue to press for equal treatment for those who serve our country.
Panetta’s announcement and acknowledgment of the scope of this crisis is an important step in ensuring the safety of our service members. We will monitor the implementation of these policies. As he said in his remarks, “One assault is one too many.”
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