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Government News
Legislation Could Force Military To Improve Handling of Sex Assaults
Psychiatric News
Volume 39 Number 12 page 11-49

Allegations of sexual assault by military personnel in Iraq and Kuwait prompted Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to commission a task force to study the problem.FIG1

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Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld commissioned a task force to study how military officers respond to sexual abuse cases. 

The eight-member Task Force on Care for Victims of Sexual Assault found a limited number of programs on sexual assault that address education and training, prevention, reporting, and victim support. These "pockets of excellence" contrast sharply with the military's policies and programs regarding sexual harassment, according to the task force report.

The task force defined sexual assault as alleged rape, forcible sodomy, assault with intent to commit rape or sodomy, and indecent assault or an attempt to commit any of these offenses. If the military finds the alleged perpetrator guilty of any of these charges, a commander can choose from several disciplinary actions including separation from the military resulting in a loss of pay and benefits and imprisonment for up to several years, according to the task force report.

The task force recommended several actions to Rumsfeld including that he establish an office in the Department of Defense (DoD) to implement the task force's recommendations. Rumsfeld began initiating some of the more urgent recommendations last month when he met with the military commanders to discuss how they handle sexual assault complaints and what can be done to fix problems they discovered, according to a DoD press release.

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Congress also weighed in on the task force report. In May the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the Fiscal 2005 defense budget bill requiring Rumsfeld to develop comprehensive policies and procedures based on those recommendations.

The amendment, by Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mont.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, requires the defense secretary to ensure that all military departments implement the new policies and procedures, to propose legislation to Congress if more resources are needed to address sexual assault, and to revise existing regulations or develop new ones to conform to the new policies, according to the bill.

Reports of sexual assaults in the military have remained stable at about 70 cases per 100,000 service members since 2002, the report noted.

The task force conducted focus groups at 21 military installations in the United States and overseas and telephone or face-to-face interviews with victims of alleged sexual assault.

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A major barrier to reporting sexual assault, the task force learned, was a perceived lack of confidentiality and privacy that could endanger the victims' safety and jeopardize their careers. But some participants in the study were equally concerned that confidentiality for the victim not "impede a commander's ability to hold offenders accountable and to ensure community safety," the report stated.

National Public Radio broadcasted interviews last month with women who alleged they were sexually assaulted by service members during their military tour of duty. They said their superiors advised them to ignore the incident and suggested that filing a report could jeopardize their career.

Army Col. Cameron Ritchie, M.C., a forensic psychiatrist and president-elect of the Society of Uniformed Services Psychiatrists, has evaluated at least 100 claims of alleged rape during her 18 years in the military.

She told Psychiatric News, "In many cases, the parties know each other and socialize together. This often involves alcohol consumption, and the situation gets out of hand."

A medical examination may reveal evidence of sexual intercourse, but rarely evidence of forcible rape, said Ritchie.

If the military decides to press charges against the alleged perpetrator following investigation of the alleged rape, the central issue often becomes whether sex was consensual, she explained.

Although military rules prohibit socializing between superiors and junior enlisted personnel, it happens, added Ritchie.

When women recruits are dependent on their superiors for promotions, privileges, and their future military career, they may feel coerced into having sex or not reporting a sexual assault, Ritchie said.

Another reason that victims keep quiet is the assumption that the chain of command will not believe them anyway, she said.

The risks for victims in reporting sexual assault include "a legal process that is potentially traumatizing by undermining or questioning their credibility and reputation, and negative evaluations by superiors that usually end [the victims'] military careers," added Ritchie.

All of the uniformed services have victim liaisons to provide support and guidance throughout the legal process. "The quality of care offered to victims has improved, and the military is committed to prosecuting offenders," said Ritchie.

The Skelton amendment can be accessed online at<http://thomas.loc.gov> by searching on the bill number, HR 4200, and clicking on "National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2005 (Placed on Calendar in Senate) [H.R.4200.PCS]."

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Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld commissioned a task force to study how military officers respond to sexual abuse cases. 

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