Military Still Lags in Assisting Victims of Sexual Assault


Last April, days after outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta saw "The Invisible War," he announced changes in how sexual assault allegations would be handled within the armed forces.

The changes included elevating the authority to prosecute sexual assaults to colonels rather than leaving it to unit commanders, such as the one who initially presided over McClendon's case, perhaps in the hope that this would encourage more women to come forward.

According to the Defense Department's own estimates, only 14 percent of sexual assaults were reported in 2010.

Greg Jacob, the policy director at Service Women's Action Network, a civil rights organization founded and led by women veterans, said there were numerous institutionalized "disincentives" to report rape and cases of sexual assault. If victims of sexual assault were in therapy, explained Jacob, and applied for jobs that required security clearance, they had to disclose both that they were in therapy and that they were in therapy because they'd been sexually assaulted.

"That's one of the reasons that the military developed 'restricted report,'" Jacob said of the provision in which victims can come forward to receive medical attention without pursuing a case. "The climate in the military is so hostile that they had to create a separate system."

Panetta also announced that Special Victims Units would be created for each branch of the military, and a record would be retained of the outcome of disciplinary and administrative proceedings related to sexual assault, and that these records would be kept in a central place.

"We have more work to do to confront this problem. There are no easy answers, but that makes it all the more essential for us to devote our energy and our attention to trying to confront this challenging crime," Panetta, who is soon to leave office, wrote in a 2012 report on the Department of Defense's response to sexual assault.

Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office at the Department of Defense, said in an email to that the military was working to combat sexual assault through multiple avenues, including Department of Defense help lines, increased training for responders and allowing victims immediate transfer from their base or command.

"The solution to the problem of sexual assault requires a multi-pronged approach," said Patton. "One that applies a wide range of authorities, activities and the full efforts of leaders and servicemembers throughout the armed forces and at every level of command and leadership."

For McClendon, it took months after she first reported her attack for a criminal investigation to get under way. She said she was never offered a rape kit, and didn't believe there was even one onboard her ship. Her investigation eventually ended with her attacker pleading guilty to having "consensual sex" and being demoted a rank. His rank was reinstated by the time their ship had reached shore.

"By the time the case had gone forward, any evidence of the rape had been washed away," McClendon said.

Kirby Dick, the director of "The Invisible War," said he talked to more than 100 sexual assault victims, many of who couldn't prosecute their attackers without coming under scrutiny themselves. Dick believes having colonels, who are still within the line of command deciding whether or not to prosecute is problematic for both the victim and the alleged perpetrator.

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