WASHINGTON -- Two months after the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps unveiled a plan to stop an epidemic of sexual assault in the ranks, Gen. James Amos said the problem was "probably one of the most challenging things I have to deal with as a service chief."

Amos, appearing at the National Press Club, spoke at length of his efforts to reverse soaring numbers of rapes and sexual assaults against female Marines. In June, the Corps reported 333 sexual assaults in the previous fiscal year. "Despite our efforts, we have been ineffective at addressing and eliminating" a scourge that has plagued installations from coast to coast, Amos wrote then.

The sexual assaults, Amos said in a memo to every Marine, are “an ugly mark on our proud reputation.”

In May, after efforts to deal with the problem failed, Amos convened an operational planning team that he likened to those formed to launch a battle campaign. Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women's Action Network and a former Marine officer, said the team's long-overdue plan showed the Marine Corps "has finally caught up to where the rest of the DOD leadership is, which isn't saying that much."

The problem of military sexual assault is not limited to the Marine Corps. Lackland Air Force Base in Texas has been rocked by a sex scandal involving male instructors who preyed on female recruits and women from across the military have spoken of their own battles with rape and sexual abuse in a recent documentary called "The Invisible War".

Amos said he has demanded "buy-in from the very top" of the Corps to eradicate sexual assault. He said generals, colonels and senior non-commissioned officers now lead classes to foster an atmosphere where sexual harassment is not tolerated and reporting abuses is not punished.

"Where are we headed? We're headed to zero," Amos said. "Will we get there? I don't know. We're part of society."

The Marine Corps is the most male and arguably the most macho of the service branches. Just 13,700 of 200,000 Marines are women. Of 85 general officers in the service, only four are female -- including the commander of the storied Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, S.C.

The renewed effort to end sexual abuse in the ranks comes at a crucial moment. Next month, the infantry officer class at Quantico, Va., will get its first two female Marines, part of a larger Pentagon effort to open more military jobs to women.

"I look every single male Marine in the eye that I could and I said, 'You need to understand that my females are just as important to me as our males are,'" Amos said. "This is a fight. It's not going to be won this year. It's not going to be won next year. But I'm absolutely bound and determined to do something about this. ... Females have to be confident enough in the leadership to come forward and say this happened and not be afraid.

"This is a personal thing with me," Amos said to applause. "We intend to turn it around."

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