Panetta Introduces Initiatives to Fight Sexual Assault in the Military

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Pentagon proposed initiatives today aimed at curtailing sexual assault in the armed forces. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the measures on Capitol Hill after closed door meetings on the issue with members of Congress.

Calling the crime a "violation of everything that the U.S. military stands for," Panetta said he hoped Congress would adopt the package into the 2012 defense budget.

At least one key measure will be enacted immediately by the secretary's own executive order. Central to the proposed regulations is the elevation of the most serious reports to the attention of a Special Court Martial Convening Authority, an officer that holds at least the rank of colonel. Panetta says the heightened status would keep cases from being forgotten at the unit level.

"At the local unit level sometimes these matters are put aside, they're not followed up with," Panetta said. "This requires that any time a complaint is received that it is referred up the chain of command for action."

Panetta said he plans to issue the mandate in the next few days.

In addition to new training for troops and their commanders, the proposed regulations include new centralized records of disciplinary proceedings stemming from incidents, as well as more therapeutic outlets for victims. The Pentagon will also provide investigators specially trained for dealing with assault victims and evidence collection; what the department is calling "Special Victims Unit" capabilities.

While admitting there was no "silver bullet" to curtailing sexual assault, Panetta said responsibility for prevention lay with every service member from the top down.

"The most important thing we can do is prosecute the offenders, deal with those who have broken the law," he said.

Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey were joined at the press conference by members of the Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus. Co-chair Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., said every lawmaker present had their own stories from military constituents.

"For me it was a nurse, someone who had served multiple times both in Iraq and in Afghanistan," she said. "When I asked if it were true, the statistics, she said 'Ma'am, I am more afraid of my own soldiers than I am of the enemy.'"

Tsongas said she hoped the measures would curtail "the same alarming statistics that we hear over and over again."

The announcement comes days after a Defense Department report indicated incidents of sexual assault in the military had risen slightly in the last year. In a report issued Friday the Pentagon said 3,192 claims involving U.S. service members as perpetrators or victims had been reported in budget year 2011, an uptick of one percent since 2010. The trend has stayed relatively the same since at 2009, which saw 3,230 reports filed.

The military says 56 percent of incidents are by carried out by service members against their peers. An estimated 86 percent of incidents are not reported.