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Finally, Some Progress in Combating Rape and Assault in the Military

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Digest this for a second: Women serving in the US military are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq. In the case of sexual assault and rape, the enemy eats across the table at the mess hall, shares a vehicle on patrol, and bandages wounds inflicted on the battlefield. As the old Pogo cartoon says, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

I'm writing after attending a second Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing on sexual assault in the military - an issue I've worked on for over a decade. Just before Congress' August recess, Dr. Kaye Whitley, Director of DOD's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (the office responsible for sexual assault policy in the military) failed to show up at the subcommittee's first hearing, opting to defy a congressional subpoena. Her male superior, Pentagon Deputy Undersecretary for Personnel & Readiness Michael Dominguez, offered to give her testimony. But Congress wanted to hear from the person who oversees SAPRO day-to-day, and sent him away. It turned out that Defense Secretary Bob Gates was unaware of Whitley's subpoena and the decision to defy it, and he was no doubt instrumental in causing her to appear today. DOD's early boneheaded bungling created an unnecessary sideshow in a very troubling story.

A GAO report released last week concludes that DOD and SAPRO still lack an oversight framework to gauge the effectiveness of programs to prevent and respond to sexual assault and rape. The report also finds that assaults and rape are drastically underreported for the familiar reasons - victims' perception that no serious action would be taken on their behalf; fear of ridicule and ostracization by fellow soldiers; and damage to careers of those who come forward. (Another report, DOD's 2006 Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty members, claimed that nearly 80% of soldiers who received unwanted sexual contact did not report it.)

This is shocking and Congress' slow response is inexcusable. Recently, Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) and I introduced H. Con. Res. 397, calling on the Secretary of Defense to develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to increase investigation and prosecution of sexual assault and rape in the military. Companion legislation was introduced today in the Senate by Sen. Hillary Clinton, and she is pushing it as an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill.

But there is some other encouraging news. Just yesterday Army Secretary Pete Geren, a former Democratic Congressman from Texas, rolled out the Army's "I Am Strong" campaign designed to eliminate sexual assault in the 1 million-person Army within five years.

I was there when Geren bluntly stated, "we're not some fraternity house...we're the US Army and we live our values." He said that sexual assault and harassment are repugnant; that the military must do better than society at large, as it did in 1948, when it began the process that made it a model for equal opportunity. Now, he wants to lead the Army to be a model when it comes to the treatment of women.

Geren properly sees this as a moral fight. As Lt. Col. David Valcourt, Deputy Commander of the Army's Training Command, said, "a soldier who would take advantage of another soldier is exactly the same soldier who would abandon a comrade in battle." Very strong stuff.

The Army's action is welcome. Congress and the Pentagon have punted on this too long, and even one victim more is too many.