A House subcommittee is set to shed new light on the problem of sexual assault in the military today, when it will hear testimony on sexual assault numbers, prevention and response as part of its ongoing investigation into the issue.
"A woman who signs up to protect her country is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire," said Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), who introduced a bill this summer to increase and encourage the investigation of prosecution of sexual assault and rape cases in the military and is attending today's hearing.
It will be the second such hearing this summer but is highly anticipated because Dr. Kaye Whitley, the director of the defense department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, will testify. Whitley was a no-show at the session July 31, even though the committee had subpoenaed her to attend.
Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Michael Dominguez prohibited Whitley from attending that hearing, saying that his decision was based upon consultation with the assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs and the general counsel of the DOD.
"It is inappropriate to question Dr. Whitley about the program when Mr. Dominguez, the decision maker responsible for the program and for the program's results, is available to answer those questions," said Cynthia O. Smith, a DOD spokeswoman, adding that while Whitley is responsible for implementing policy, Dominguez has "full accountability and responsibility."
The decision outraged the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA), who sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates Aug. 12 demanding the department's staff cooperate with the investigation into sexual assault in the armed forces. He said Whitley's testimony was vital because the office she leads "serves as the single point of accountability for the Department of Defense sexual assault policy."
At the hearing, Waxman questioned what the DOD was "trying to cover up" and said it has "a history of covering up sexual offense problems." He announced Aug. 13 that the DOD had agreed to cooperate and that Whitley would be made available.
The DOD announced last month that it will implement a new strategy in Oct. 2009 to help troops protect their fellow servicemembers from sexual assault, but Rep. Harman says it's not addressing the problem now.
"We don't have 13 months to wait," Harman said.
She also said "bright red lines" need to be drawn about personal behavior in the military and that the prosecution of these crimes needs to increase to combat the "epidemic."
"There are a lot of questions I want answered," said retired Colonel Ann Wright, a 29-year veteran of the Army and Army Reserves who is advocating for an investigation into sexual assault and "suspicious" suicides in the military.
"The warnings to women should begin above the doors of the military recruiting stations, as that is where assaults on women in the military begins – before they are even recruited," Wright wrote recently on her website.
A recent Government Accountability Office report found that the DOD does not adequately provide guidance on implementing sexual assault policies and programs in deployment areas, that not all commanders support such programs, that prevention and response training is not consistently effective, and that a shortage of mental health care providers affects victims' access to mental health services.
"Left unchecked, these challenges can discourage or prevent some servicemembers from using the programs when needed," the GAO said. It based its findings on surveys conducted with 3,750 servicemembers at domestic and deployed units and a 2006 DOD survey. 103 servicemembers reported being sexually assaulted within the previous year, and 52 did not report the assault.
The GAO identified additional factors in non-reporting, including: "the belief that nothing would be done; fear of ostracism, harassment, or ridicule; and concern that peers would gossip."
The Associated Press reported in July that of all the women who have visited a VA facility after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, 15 percent of them screened positive for military sexual trauma.
"That means they indicated that while on active duty they were sexually assaulted, raped, or were sexually harassed, receiving repeated unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature," the report said.