WASHINGTON -- Military law is up to the task of prosecuting service members accused of sexual assault, but DoD needs to take steps to better assist victims, DoD's top personnel official noted June 3 on Capitol Hill.
The Uniform Code of Military Justice "provides us plenty of authority with which to prosecute perpetrators" of sexual assault, David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Total Force.
Yet, citing conclusions of a recently completed DoD task force report, Chu noted that DoD must "devote more ... full-time resources to victim advocacy or victim care."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Feb. 5 directed the stand-up of a special task force to investigate media reports of alleged sexual assaults on service members serving overseas and to examine how DoD treats and cares for victims.
Ellen P. Embrey, deputy assistant secretary of defense for force health protection and readiness, was appointed Feb. 13 to head the task force. The task force's findings were the subject of the hearing, which Embrey attended with Chu.
Embrey said current DoD policy is primarily geared toward preventing sexual harassment. Consequently, she noted, "More direct focus is needed on sexual assault prevention and response."
Military leaders, she continued, "were very concerned" when apprised of reports of sexual assault within their commands. However, Embrey noted commanders "were often not sufficiently trained or educated or sensitive to the needs of sexual assault victims."
Leaders, she pointed out, also "need to better understand the effects that sexual assault has on a victim and on the unit" and the realize the importance of victim privacy concerns and the role of victim advocates.
The task force also found "that multifunctional teams are needed to respond to victims," Embrey observed. She said "victim advocates that are currently available in the Navy and Marine Corps do make a ddifference in being responsive to a victim's needs." DoD, she added, is looking to expand victim's advocates programs across the department.
"Research shows this will make a significant difference in victim care, support and recovery," Embrey noted.
The department, she continued, will implement training and awareness programs "to help leaders and service members identify (sexual assault) risk factors, how and where to access help, what to expect when care is provided," and the importance of reporting sexual assaults.
The task force, Embrey said, recommended four immediate actions:
Establish a single policy office for all sexual assault matters within the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Determine how best to apply the task force findings and recommendations across DoD.
Utilize DoD-wide communication networks to quickly train and inform service members on sexual assault matters.
Convene a summit meeting of commanders and subject matter experts to discuss and resolve complex issues regarding sexual assault in the military.
DoD, Embrey pointed out, needs to improve its data collection and reporting system of sexual assaults and establish oversight tools.
"We will be establishing the (single policy) office that Ms. Embrey's report recommends," Chu told House subcommittee members, noting he hopes to do that in two weeks or so. Chu also stated that he'd make it a goal to improve the sexual assault report database.
Chu said Rumsfeld made it clear to military leaders at a recent combatant commanders' conference that it's paramount that sexual assault victims feel comfortable in reporting incidents to their chain of command.
Rumsfeld "expects that conversation to continue all the way down the chain of command to the lowest level ... and expects to hear back from the combatant commanders about their findings," Chu concluded.