05/31/2012 04:29 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2012

Honoring Women Who Serve

Even though the parades and commemorations for Memorial Day are over, I can't help but think about an issue that impacts women in the Armed Services and that doesn't get much notice. Let's recall that Memorial Day began as a day to memorialize those soldiers who died in the Civil War, and over the years, those who perished in all our nation's wars. It's also become an occasion to honor those currently serving, who now include a steadily rising number of women. Although barred from serving in combat, the nature of modern war has exposed more and more female recruits to danger on the front lines. It is therefore all the more disturbing that many women service members believe, according to Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), that they are in more danger of experiencing sexual assault from their male comrades in arms than they are of being felled by enemy fire.

The statistics on sexual assault in the military are daunting. At a January 2012 press conference, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reported that the military received 3,191 reports of sexual assault in fiscal 2011, up slightly from 3,158 in 2010. But these statistics hardly tell the whole story. According to Panetta himself, sexual assault is "a very underreported crime." Officials estimate the true number of assaults is closer to 19,000 -- an astonishing figure, with traumatic results for female soldiers and, needless to say, with severe implications for unit cohesion. Women are twice as likely to be assaulted in the military as they are in civilian life.

Both the Pentagon and the Veteran's Administration (VA) bear responsibility for coping with the aftermath of sexual assault. The VA has established screening and treatment programs for victims of what it has termed Military Sexual Trauma (MST). Many issues still remain regarding the treatment of those with MST -- most do not get treatment from the VA, but from private providers who likely do not have the knowledge or training to treat such victims. The small portion of victims who are treated by the VA find themselves competing for the scarce resources available within the system.

The trauma of rape and sexual assault can intensify in a closed system like the military, where such crimes may be ignored by those in authority. After all, everyone involved knows everyone else, and victims must rely on the same network for day-to-day survival that also denies or denigrates their allegations and fails to bring the perpetrators, in this case fellow soldiers, to justice.

The Pentagon is duty bound to prevent such assaults, to prosecute those responsible, and to care for the victims. But regulatory and cultural factors have been allowed to derail all of these responsibilities. In areport released a year ago, the Government Accountability Office note that although in June 2006, the Inspector General's Office of the Department of Defense (DOD) was directed to develop policy and oversee sexual assault investigations and related training, it failed to do so, "primarily because it believes it has other, higher priorities."

Secretary Panetta has taken steps to remedy what he clearly considers to be an egregious situation. But the steps proposed emphasize what should happen after an assault is alleged to have occurred, and lack actions that would work to prevent rape and sexual assaults in the first place. For that reason, and to institutionalize needed change, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) has introduced the latest congressional effort to combat sexual assault in the military -- the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act, orSTOP.

STOP (HR 3435) would establish an office within DOD with jurisdiction over the reporting, oversight, investigation, and victim care of sexual assaults. Such matters would be removed from the normal chain of command. The proposed law would also set up a director of military prosecutions and end non-judicial punishment or the consideration of service when looking at the perpetrator. Upon a conviction of a sexual assault, information about the perpetrator would be sent to the Department of Justice to be included in the National Sex Offender Registry. STOP would also establish the Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Council in DOD to advise the Secretary and Congress on relevant policy.

STOP is needed, but laws alone will not eliminate the danger of sexual assault from military service. That will take a much deeper examination of a military culture that uses highly sexualized language and imagery that equates being a good soldier with not being a female, usually in the most vulgar and graphic terms. It will take a commitment to a military culture that values diversity and rewards those who act against bullying and assault. It will take top down commitment in the officer ranks. Such a reformed culture will not only "just" protect women, but it would also enhance readiness in an enterprise where mutual trust and respect is key to survival. We ought not observe another Memorial Day without such change. The women serving our country deserve better.