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Defense Secretary Panetta: Battling Sex Crimes in the Military Is a "Top Priority"

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WASHINGTON -- "How many of you were raped while serving your country? How many of you feel like you were personally retaliated against?"

These are just two of the questions Natalie Morales asks several former members of the U.S. Armed Forces who were sexually assaulted while on duty in the United States. In a report airing Thursday on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams, Morales explores the epidemic of rape on military bases in the U.S., sitting down with women from every branch of the U.S. military who were raped and subsequently retaliated against for reporting the crime.

Why survivors of rape have had to endure systemic retaliation for reporting sexual assaults, and why only a fraction (less than 10 percent) of sex crimes in the military are actually prosecuted, are questions Morales then poses to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

In an interview, Secretary Panetta admits to Morales that sexual assault and an inadequate disciplinary process for sex crimes are endemic problems that the military has been 'sweeping under the rug' for decades.

"We owe all of those who have been impacted not just an apology, but we owe them the effort to make sure that this doesn't happen again," Secretary Panetta tells Morales. "As difficult as their experience has been... we are going to learn from that."

In April, the senior U.S. Defense official instituted a series of policy changes on the investigation and prosecution of rape in the military, announcing the creation of a Special Victims Unit for each branch of the U.S. armed forces and transferring sexual assault investigations and the decision to prosecute away from unit commanders up to the rank of colonel.

Secretary Panetta implemented the new policies just days after watching The Invisible War, a ground-breaking documentary revealing the systemic nature of rape and sexual assault on military bases in the United States through a series of backchannel screenings.

The film, made by Oscar-nominated director Kirby Dick and Emmy-nominated producers Amy Ziering and Tanner Barklow, also reveals that the large majority of sexual assaults on U.S. military bases are committed by a small minority of service members, who are serial perpetrators.

"The Department of Defense must much more aggressively investigate, prosecute and incarcerate these 'enemies within' who are debilitating our fighting force," Mr. Dick and Ms. Ziering said in an email interview, referring to serial perpetrators of sexual assault in the military who have, to date, avoided prosecution.

The filmmakers have also called on the Defense Department to make even deeper policy changes, such as removing the decision to investigate and prosecute claims of sexual assault completely out of the victim's chain of command.

"We certainly acknowledge Secretary Panetta for making sexual assault a top priority, but there's much that needs to be done," they said.

* Watch The Invisible War through Facebook or on DVD (available October 23)

* Watch a video preview of Natalie Morales' interview with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta below.

The report airs Thursday, Sept. 27 at 10 p.m./9c.

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