WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has exempted sexual assault prevention workers from the Pentagon's mandatory furloughs this year.
Hagel recently announced that due to sequestration, approximately 680,000 civilian employees would be forced to take 11 days of unpaid leave in this fiscal year.
But with sexual assault in the military becoming an increasingly urgent concern, Hagel has decided to allow employees who work on this issue to avoid furloughs.
Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith told The Huffington Post that the exemption "will ensure responsive victim care and ensure program initiatives recently directed by Secretary Hagel will be implemented swiftly and efficiently."
Politico, which first broke the news, reported that the announcement would affect about 500 workers. Smith said the department was still working on the details and did not yet have final numbers.
In the past month, three men who were supposed to be preventing sexual assault in the military have themselves been accused of inappropriate conduct.
In early May, the officer in charge of the Air Force's sexual assault prevention program was arrested for sexual assault. About a week later, reports came out that a soldier coordinating a sexual assault prevention program in Fort Hood, Texas, was under investigation for "abusive sexual conduct." And an Army officer who managed the sexual assault prevention office at the Fort Campbell military base in Kentucky was removed from his job after allegations that he violated his ex-wife's protection order.
A recent Pentagon report estimated that as many as 26,000 service members have been assaulted.
"This department may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime and the perception that there is tolerance of it could very well undermine our ability to effectively carry out the mission and to recruit and retain the good people we need," said Hagel recently, promising to make combating this epidemic a priority.
President Barack Obama, Hagel and other top defense leaders met at the White House on May 16 about stopping the problem.