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US Military Officials Call Sex Abuse In Ranks Serious Problem

  • Zlatica Hoke

Top U.S. military officials have vowed to root out sexual abuse, a persistent problem in all branches of the armed forces. The victims of sexual battery, harassment and stalking are mostly female members of the military, but gay men and others also have reported assaults. In some cases, the perpetrators turned out to be officers tasked with preventing abuse.

Sexual misconduct in the ranks remains a problem despite recently enacted preventive measures, making it clear that the military alone cannot solve it. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said as much at a press conference Friday. But he said rooting out the problem is his priority.

"Our force structure - it's the fabric of our system. No matter how many new technologies we employ and how much the quality of our technology and our weaponry gives us an edge - and it does - no matter how much money we have, it won't work unless your people make it work. And so it has to be at the center of our focus of leadership and our priorities."

The Army this week confirmed that a third officer in charge of preventing sexual assaults is implicated in a harassment case.

General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for increased awareness of the problem among the troops.

"Every single member of the joint force, in every unit at every level must be alert to the problem and be part of the solution. Working together we can and will restore faith in ourselves and the trust and faith of the American people."

Several sexual abuse survivors testified in Washington Thursday. Jennifer Norris said that military commanders often ignore or marginalize the victims. "The system is rigged against the victims," she said.

Although most victims are women, gay service member Brian Lewis testified that he had been raped by a superior officer aboard a Navy ship in 2000. He said those who report abuse are often considered liars and troublemakers.

"We are not unpatriotic for bringing this to light. The military betrayed us," said Lewis.

Testimonials on Capitol Hill came just before President Barack Obama met with his top defense officials at the White House.

"Not only is it a crime, not only is it shameful and disgraceful, but it also is going to make and has made a military less effective than it can be."

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill Thursday that would take prosecution of sexual assaults in the armed forces out of the chain of command. That would prevent superior officers from handling, or even dismissing, the cases of their subordinates.