The U.S. Defense Department has announced a new policy aimed at preventing sexual assault in the armed forces. Officials acknowledge that challenges lie ahead in implementing the policy, but experts say the military has, in their view, "finally" made a good start.
The new policy announced in early January establishes a consistent training program across all U.S. military institutions worldwide aimed at raising awareness of the problems of sexual assault, and making clear that it will not be tolerated.
The Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, David Chu, announced the policy at a Pentagon news conference.
"Our goal is zero,” he said. “Now, we recognize we're not going to get there right away. But we have already cut the incidence of sexual assault in this department in half in a roughly six year period. I think a reasonable goal is can we cut it in half again in a similar period."
Under Secretary Chu announced the new policy, along with Air Force Brigadier General K.C. McClain.
"The mantra for our successful program implementation is 'Education, education, education,'” she said. “We have directed that education and training will be recurring throughout a service member's career. This is not a one-time shot."
In addition to the planned extensive training program for U.S. military people at all levels, the new policy sets out a standard procedure to be followed in response to incidents of sexual assault. It provides military health care workers and force commanders with a specific set of procedures designed to care for and protect victims, and pursue and prosecute perpetrators.
"Commanders are going to be critical to the success of this program,” she added. “They have to understand the philosophy behind these changes, and how this will help them. The commanders are charged with the safety and security of everyone that is assigned to them. And it will help the command respond, and help the victims and help improve the climate of that installation."
Sexual assault includes a variety of offenses ranging from unwanted touching to rape. The U.S. military has been working to fight sexual assault for many years, but experts say a comprehensive policy was long overdue. And they endorse the defense officials' view that announcing the policy is only the beginning.
"Now the hard part starts," said Lynn Bernabei, a Washington lawyer who specializes in sexual assault cases. “The hard part is going to be to change the culture. And from experience I think the only way they're really going to change the culture so that sexual harassment and sexual assault is not tolerated is to hold those people who engage in those kinds of actions accountable. That's going to be the real test of whether these policies are going to work or not. And that's a hard job."
General McClain, who is the Commander of the U.S. military's Joint Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, says accountability will be a key part of the new policy. And experts say that is as important as the planned education program.
The Communications Director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, Susan Lewis, says the military faces several difficult challenges in fighting sexual crimes and holding people accountable. She cites what she calls the "entrenched" chain of command and the male-dominated military culture, as well as the fact that U.S. military units are spread throughout the world. But Ms. Lewis also says the military might have some advantages in implementing its new anti-sexual assault program.
"The very fact that it is a structural organization, that you can have top-down policy, and that does hold everyone accountable for following policy means that it might be a very good place to see how things like prevention education work,” said Ms. Lewis. “And they may be able to succeed in implementing certain policies in the military that have been somewhat harder to do in the broader public."
Ms. Lewis also points out that the U.S. military is under pressure from the Congress, as well as from the White House and the Secretary of Defense, to, as much as possible, eliminate sexual offenses from its ranks. And lawyer Lynn Bernabei says there is also another motivation for military commanders.
"It's probably necessary for military discipline,” added Ms. Bernabei. “I think these kind of severe events such as have been in the press over the years is very destructive to discipline. And I think that's much more important in the military context than in the private industry context."
Perhaps with that in mind, the new Defense Department policy orders the designation of an officer in every command to be responsible for properly handling sexual assault reports. The goal is to create a system in which victims are cared for, and can report sexual assaults without fear of retribution, and would-be perpetrators know that if they commit sexual crimes they will be punished.