WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is preparing a series of new initiatives to try to curb sexual assaults in the military, the defense chief said Wednesday, calling the problem a stain on the honor of the armed forces.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said there were 3,191 sexual assaults reported in the military last year, which would be a slight increase from the 3,158 reported in 2010. But he said that because so few victims report the crime, the real number is closer to 19,000 assaults.
"It is an affront to the basic American values we defend and it is a stain on the good honor of the great majority of our troops and our families," Panetta told a Pentagon press conference.
"Our men and women in uniform put their lives on the line every day to try to keep America safe." He said. "We have a moral duty to keep them safe from those who would attack their dignity and their honor."
He announced several changes that he said would be the first in a broad package of proposals put forward in the coming months, some that would need congressional approval.
Though they were incremental and modest in relation to the vastness of the problem, aides later said Panetta has taken a personal interest in the problem and personally announced the changes in part because he wanted to focus on the issue a measure of attention he feels has been somewhat lacking in the department.
Immediate reaction from Congress was limited, but Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said that while Panetta should be applauded for his effort it was insufficient.
"What Secretary Panetta is doing helps, but it is tinkering rather than overhauling a system that does not adequately protect the honor of the men and women in uniform," she said. "The core of the flawed system remains in place — unit commanders will continue to have complete and total discretion over incidents of assault in their unit."
—Victim services will be extended not only to people in uniform but also military spouses as well as Pentagon civilians and contractors working abroad.
—Employees who work as victim advocates will have to get credentialed to put their skills in line with national standards.
—More money will be spent training investigators and lawyers to go after and prosecute perpetrators.
—Panetta ordered an assessment be done in 120 days on how commanding officers and senior enlisted leaders are trained on sexual assault prevention and response, and what can be done to strengthen that training.
"Our leaders in uniform ... are on the front lines of this effort," he said. "It's important that everyone in uniform be alert to this problem and have the leadership training to help prevent these crimes from occurring."
Saying he wanted to speak directly to the victims of sexual assault in the Defense Department, Panetta said somberly: "I deeply regret that such crimes occur in the U.S. military... I'm committed to providing you the support and resources you need and to taking whatever steps are necessary to keep what happened to you from happening to others."
His remarks Wednesday followed an announcement last month of two other new policies to support victims. Those were:
—The department is standardizing across military service branches the length of time sexual assault records are kept. Certain documents will be retained for 50 years in unrestricted cases and for five years in restricted cases to give victims longer access to the documents. A restricted case is one filed confidentially, meaning the victim gets care but doesn't want the assault reported to law enforcement. An unrestricted assault triggers an investigation.)
—Victims who file unrestricted cases now have the option to request an expedited transfer from their unit or installation — i.e. they must get a response from their unit commander within 72 hours. A service member also will be able to request a review of any denied request and receive that response within 72 hours.
Announcement of those two changes accompanied the Pentagon's annual report last month showing assault cases rose at the nation's three major military academies in the latest academic year from one year earlier.
The Defense Department's "Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies" for academic year 2010-2011 found there were 65 reports of sexual assaults involving cadets and midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy. That was up from 41 reported assaults in the prior academic year. Officials said they could not conclusively identify the reasons for the increase but that it could be because the department has worked to encourage more victims to report them.
Beyond the academy report every December, the Pentagon also releases an annual report each March on sexual assaults throughout the services. Last year's said there were 3,158 reports of assaults in the 2010 budget year, ranging from rape to unwanted touching.