Task Force Recommends Plan to Prevent Sexual Assaults
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May. 14, 2004 A DoD task force has released details of a sweeping plan it recommends to help prevent sexual assaults within the military and provide the best possible care for victims.
The Task Force on Care for Victims of Sexual Assaults, formed by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in mid-February in response to reports of alleged sexual assaults in Kuwait and Iraq, recommended the establishment of a single office within the DoD to handle sexual assault matters.
Ellen Embrey, director of the task force, told Pentagon reporters May 13 that the office would develop standardized DoD-wide policies regarding sexual assault and help the services and combatant commanders put them in place.
The office would also oversee the implementation of the task force's other recommendations, outlined in the group's 99-page report. The recommendations are based on focus group sessions conducted at 21 military locations worldwide, as well as personal and telephone interviews.
Based on its review, the task force concluded that: DoD policies and standards focus on sexual harassment, not assault; commanders don't have the guidance, resources and emphasis on prevention and response; and efforts to hold offenders accountable are not apparent, due to Privacy Act concerns. The task force also found that although the services have their own programs addressing sexual assault, that no cohesive program exists for the entire Defense Department.
Embrey said task force members found a general confusion about sexual assault and how it differs from sexual harassment. "The majority of people we spoke to did not clearly understand what sexual assault is and what it isn't, or how to go about reporting it, or the avenues available to them," she said. Many people the task force members spoke with also didn't know where to go to get help or what kind of help to expect, Embrey added.
In response, the task force recommended a far-reaching information campaign to quickly get this information, as well as all new policies, guidelines and command tools developed to address the problem, to the field.
The group recommended that a summit be convened within the next three months to define sexual assault and address the challenge of protecting victims' privacy while enabling commanders to maintain good order and discipline and hold offenders accountable. Embrey said members of the summit, to be made up of senior military and civilian leaders and outside experts on sexual assault, would also develop a plan for responding to sexual assaults during deployments to remote U.S., overseas and combat locations.
Embrey said sexual assaults challenge the entire nation, and the U.S. military is not immune. "Sexual assault is a crime and it has potentially devastating and long-term effects on victims and their units," she said. "And, therefore, we must do everything we can to prevent sexual assaults from occurring."
She said DoD must also ensure that the systems of reporting, responding and investigating sexual assaults are timely, effective and sensitive to the victims' needs. "And most importantly," she said, "we must ensure that the department's leaders at all levels are committed to making the necessary improvements."
Embrey said the task force was encouraged to find that virtually all the commanders and leaders they spoke with "indicated a strong commitment to do the right thing and a willingness to support the changes that would make a difference in this area." She said the task force also found cases in which individual commanders "had taken it upon themselves" to improve sexual assault awareness and response.
Also encouraging, she noted, is that some task force's recommendations for corrective actions are already being initiated. "I am confident that the Department of Defense can and will succeed in addressing this important issue," she said.