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Defense Department Announces New Measures to Combat Sexual Assault

by Wendy Innes, published

Last month, the Department of Defense laid out its plan to combat the growing epidemic of sexual assaults that were exposed in May of this year. The plan includes seven new initiatives that the DoD says will help to reduce the numbers of assaults by streamlining investigations, improving victim care and increasing accountability.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel released a statement regarding the new initiatives, saying:

"Eliminating sexual assault from the armed forces remains one of the Department of Defense's top priorities. This effort requires our absolute and sustained commitment to providing a safe environment in which every service member and DoD civilian is free from the threat of sexual harassment and assault. Our success depends on a dynamic and responsive approach. We, therefore, must continually assess and strive to improve our prevention and response programs."

These new measures that Secretary Hagel has directed the armed services to adopt include:

  • Improve victim legal support by creating a legal advocacy program to provide legal representation to the victims of sexual assault throughout the judicial process. November  1, 2013, will mark the initial operating capacity for this and it is to be fully functional by January 1, 2014.
  • Pre-trial investigative hearings of all sexual assaults and related charges are to be conducted by Judge Advocate General officers.
  • Service secretaries will enhance victim protections by developing and implementing policies that allow the reassignment or transfer of members accused of committing sexual assault or a related offense. The goal is to eliminate continued contact and to respect the rights of both the victim and the accused.
  • Timely follow-up reports are now required on sexual assault incidents and responses given to the first general or flag officer within the chain of command.
  • The DoD Inspector General has been instructed to evaluate closed sexual assault investigations on a regular basis.
  • Service secretaries are directed to standardize prohibitions on inappropriate behavior between recruiters and/or trainers and their recruits and/or trainees.
  • The general counsel of the DoD has been directed to develop changes to the Manual for Courts-Martial that would permit victim input during the sentencing phase of courts-martial.

On the same day that the defense department announced these new directives, the White House issued a statement that said in part:

"Women and men who step forward to serve our country must be protected from this devastating crime, and offenders must be held appropriately accountable. Today’s announcement by Secretary of Defense Hagel of new Executive Actions is the result of intensive effort by the Department of Defense -- including the senior civilian leadership and each of the Services -- to fulfill the President’s call to action. The initiatives announced today are substantial, but only a step along a path toward eliminating this crime from our military ranks. The President expects this level of effort to be sustained not only in the coming weeks and months, but as far into the future as necessary. We will continue to work with the Pentagon to make progress on this high priority goal because none of our men and women in uniform should ever have to experience the pain and degradation of sexual assault."

There is no doubt these changes will help in the aftermath of a sexual assault.

"I am confident that we are making a difference," Lt. General Curtis Scaparrotti, director of the Joint Staff, told the Wall Street Journal on August 15.

Various lawmakers and victim's rights groups say that these changes, while positive, do nothing to stop the assaults from occurring, they simply change what happens after it already has.

"The Pentagon taking action is a good thing and these are positive steps forward, but it is not the leap forward required to solve the problem," said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

The number of sexual assaults has been steadily increasing over the years, but few cases are ever brought to trial and often victims are forced to remain in close contact with their assailants, something that has the potential to change under these new measures. Efforts in the past to curb sexual assaults have failed and many have drawn the ire of victim's rights groups, such as the DoD's "Ask her when she's sober" campaign or the Army's  video game that treats rape as if it's an awkward social situation instead of a violent crime.

While the defense department is hopeful that these changes will help curb the sexual assault epidemic, the effects, if any, that they will have remain to be seen and some believe that they will fall woefully short. It's clear, however, that doing nothing was not an option.

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