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Military's sexual assault policies found wanting

A civilian panel that advises top Pentagon officials on matters relating to women in the armed forces found that sexual assault victims fear embarrassment, retaliation and career penalties as the result of reporting incidents.

To restore trust in the system, the Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services recommended in its latest annual report that military commanders do a better job of enforcing zero tolerance policies and prosecuting offenses while giving the victim as much confidentiality as possible.

The findings and recommendations are consistent with the 2004 Task Force on Care for Victims of Sexual Assault report which is the basis for policies being implemented by the Pentagon's Joint Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response.

This is the first time under the advisory panel's current two-year charter that it has examined sexual assault issues. The panel, first established in 1951, stopped studying sexual assault in 2002 after conservatives criticized the panel for having a feminist agenda. The 2003 report focused on personnel retention, support during deployment and women's health care issues.

After a series of reports criticizing military leaders for failing to prevent sexual assaults, David Chu, undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, asked the advisory committee to study sexual assault again.

The report is based on information gathered from 70 focus groups convened at 14 military bases in the United States and abroad, policy and program briefs from Defense Department officials and current research on the issues. According to the report, women comprise 16 percent of enlisted members of the military and 19 percent of all officers.

Other recommendations on preventing and responding to sexual assault included:

  • Codifying the sexual assault zero tolerance policy in a Pentagon directive.

  • Incorporating a new definition of sexual assault into the Uniform Code of Military Justice as soon as possible.

  • Creating a data reporting system for sexual assaults that protects victims' confidentiality.

  • Allow for confidential reporting and victim advocates.

The report also includes recommendations on how the military's policies could affect deployment and retention.

Recommendations on deployment include allowing more time during pre-deployment training for attending to personal affairs, and end the simultaneous deployment of parents with minor children because of the adverse effects on those children.

The panel recommended that new employer tax benefits be implemented to help National Guard and Reserve members find jobs after deployment.

Retention recommendations included finding ways to allow service members to better balance family life with their work and developing programs to help female officers deal with childbirth and child rearing. The establishment of leave sabbatical programs was also recommended as a way to encourage service members with families to remain in the military.