WASHINGTON - The Defense Department has zero tolerance for sexual assaults and is making headway in preventing them and taking aggressive action when they occur, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress.
Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee about the fiscal 2012 budget request, the leaders responded to a congressman’s question about a class-action lawsuit filed.
A group of 17 former and current servicemembers claimed that Gates and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld took inadequate steps to prevent them from being raped, sexually assaulted or sexually harassed.
Limiting his response in light of the lawsuit, Gates said the matter is of “grave concern” and said he has worked closely with Mullen and other military leaders to address the issue.
“I have zero tolerance for sexual assault, and I’ve worked with Chairman Mullen and the Joint Chiefs and the service secretaries to see if we’re doing all we can to prevent and respond to sexual assaults,” he said.
Gates said he has had multiple meetings on the subject with senior leaders over the past four years and established critical areas of departmental focus. These involve reducing the stigma associated with reporting incidents, ensuring commanders receive sufficient training, and providing appropriate training and resources to investigators and trial counsel.
“We’ve hired dozens more investigators, field instructors, prosecutors and lab examiners,” Gates told the panel. “We’ve spent close to $2 million over the last two years to train our prosecutors so that they’re better able to be successful. We have expanded the sexual assault response coordinator and victim advocates tenfold, from 300 to 3,000.
“And we now have those advocates at every base and installation in the world, including in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he added.
Gates also noted that the percentage of alleged sexual-assault offenders facing court-martial proceedings has increased from about 30 percent in 2007 to 52 percent in 2010.
In addition, defense officials noted that the incidence rate of sexual assault has decreased substantially. In 2006, 6.8 percent of women and 1.8 percent of men on active duty indicated experiencing some form of sexual assault in the year before they were surveyed. Last year, that dropped to 4.4 percent of women and 0.9 percent of men.
“So we are making headway,” Gates told the House panel. “The fact is, we aren’t where we should be. It is a grave concern, and we will keep working on it.”
Mullen echoed Gates’ call for improvements in education and a focus on leadership to address the problem.
Every unit commander receives sexual assault prevention and response program training before taking command, officials noted.
But Mullen conceded that sexual assault remains an “extraordinarily difficult issue.” He acknowledged that “enough anecdotal information” has come out of Iraq and Afghanistan to be of concern.
The chairman added that it’s “unacceptable” the department has not yet reached the point where it should be on the issue.
“We still have significant work to do,” he said. “And the leadership is focused on that.”
Nationwide, sexual assault is one of the nation’s most underreported crimes, most likely because of victims’ concerns about the stigma associated with the crime and loss of privacy, Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said.
“It has no place in the U.S. military and cannot be tolerated,” she said. “The result of these crimes degrades morale, unit cohesion and can affect mission readiness.”