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Military Rape Policies Announced By Defense Department Don't Fix Problem, Groups Charge

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AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

In light of statistics that show staggering rates of sexual assault in the U.S. military, the Department of Defense announced on Tuesday two new policies designed to help victims. But the policies do nothing to fix the source of the problem, human rights organizations charged Thursday.

Defense officials currently visit military academies, review sexual assault policies and hold focus groups with cadets and midshipmen in efforts to curb the incidence of rape. In addition, the DOD said, the retention periods for sexual assault records will now be standardized and the process of transferring victims to a new unit after they have been sexually assaulted will be expedited.

But according to two military-focused human rights groups, Protect Our Defenders and the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), the real barrier to justice for sexual assault victims in the military is the fact that one commander often has total discretion over how cases are handled, despite obvious conflicts of interest. For instance, the commander making decisions about a particular case may be responsible for both the victim and the perpetrator, making it difficult for him or her to make objective decisions about whether the case will go forward, who will prosecute, who will defend, and what disciplinary actions to take.

Women in the military are more likely to be raped by American soldiers than to be killed in combat, according to statistics released by the Pentagon. In 2010, approximately 19,000 sexual assaults are estimated to have occurred in the military, although only 13.5 percent were actually reported. And the problem begins for some service members when they are still cadets: A new DOD report shows nearly a 60 percent increase in reported sexual assaults at schools like West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy in 2011.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the two organizations called the DOD's new policy changes "half-measures" and outlined their own suggestions for handling sexual assaults.

"We believe that DOD must take the prosecution, reporting, oversight, investigation, and victim care of sexual assaults out of the hands of the normal chain of command and place the jurisdiction in the hands of an impartial office staffed by experts – both military and civilian," the groups wrote. "We also believe that the survivors of rape and sexual assault must be consulted to formulate a directive that effectively addresses this issue. These men and women know better than anyone the flaws that currently exist."

The DOD has not responded to the letter. A spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.

Congress is also taking steps to bring justice to military rape victims and reform the way cases are handled. In November, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) introduced H.R. 3435, the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act, which would take the reporting, oversight and investigation of sexual assaults out of the hands of the military’s normal chain of command and place it in an autonomous office of military experts. The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Armed Services.

"When sexual assaults and rape are hushed, or ignored, trust in a unit is compromised along with its collective readiness to engage the enemy," Speier said in a statement. "We owe our brave women and men in the military a justice process that protects them, not punishes them when they become victims of sexual assaults and rape."

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