Pentagon takes new steps to fight sexual assaults

Friday - 4/20/2012, 10:23am EDT

Maj. Gen. Kay Hertog, director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office

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The Defense Department is ramping up efforts to fight and prevent sexual assaults in the services.

The number of sexual assaults reported has remained relatively steady over the last few years, but DoD estimates about 86 percent of assaults are not reported. Nearly 3,200 sexual assaults were reported in the 12-month budget period ending Sept. 30, a 1 percent increase over the year before.

"I don't want people to think that it's spiraling out of control because we've really done an awful lot of education in terms of trying to get people to report being sexually assaulted so we can help them," said Maj. Gen. Mary Kay Hertog, director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, in an interview with The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp.

Mary Kay Hertog (Photo from Pentagon Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office)

One of the new initiatives announced this week by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is serious offenses such as rape and forcible sodomy will be subject to a court-martial review by a colonel or caption.

Panetta also said he would work with Congress on legislation on other initiatives, such as creating a special victims units within the services and allowing National Guard and reserve members to remain on active duty after they file a complaint so they are eligible for services.

"The focus really is a laser focus in so many different areas because it is a problem we have to attack on all different angles," Hertog said. "As the secretary said, there really is no one silver bullet."

The department's initiatives build on steps it already has started making to combat sexual assault. For one, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office is headed by Hertog, a uniformed officer. She said, "Quite frankly, when Congress wants to talk [about] this issue, they prefer to talk to somebody in uniform because this is where the issue is."

Also, once a victim comes forward, they are "linked up" with someone in the legal system. Typically, the victim is between 18 and 24 years old and in their first enlistment, Hertog said. This is "maybe the first time away from home. Scared. They don't know what the military justice system is all about," she said.

The goal is to take these cases to court, if the evidence is strong and the victim is willing to participate. However, Hertog added, "We know that every year, hundreds decline to participate because they just don't feel comfortable about that."

Victims of sexual assault can also file a restricted report, where they can confidentially report an assault and access services, such as medical care and counseling, but do not want the perpetrator to be held accountable, Hertog said.

Another policy change was the option of expedited transfer for people who came forward as having been sexually assaulted. The commander has 72 hours to decide whether they will allow the victim to transfer to a different unit or installation. If the commander says no, the first general officer or flag officer then has 72 hours to make a decision, Hertog said.

The Pentagon also is making progress in how it documents sexual assaults, Hertog said. DoD was hearing from victims of sexual assault that when they left the military and went to the Veterans Affairs Department for services, no documentation existed on their sexual assault. The standards now for document retention is 50 years for unrestricted reports and five years for restricted reports, Hertog said.

Much of the change will be cultural as well. In a lawsuit against DoD, eight former and current service members say they were raped and sexually assaulted during their service. In some instances, the women were discouraged from reporting the assaults. One woman was told by a supervisor that "this happens all the time."

The services are now briefing everyone who enters military service on what constitutes sexual assault, Hertog said. Service members then receive more "in-depth training" throughout their career. Commanders and investigators receive specialized training, she added.

All service members "have to understand that sexual assault is a crime, and we're absolutely not going to tolerate it, and if they do engage in this kind of criminal behavior that they're going to be held appropriately accountable," Hertog said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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