WASHINGTON – The military will begin providing confidentiality to alleged sexual assault victims in the immediate period after an attack in a policy change designed to persuade more to come forward, Pentagon officials said Tuesday.
The change is one of several being fashioned by the Pentagon after a rash of reports of sexual assaults in the Iraq theater of war, the Air Force Academy (search) and elsewhere in the military.
Currently, the only officer who can promise confidentiality to a victim is a chaplain, said David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. The military proposes to extend that to certain medical personnel and victim's advocates, and to prevent the commanding officer and others from learning the victim's identity without consent.
"The lack of privacy and confidentiality for service members to report a sexual assault without triggering an investigation has, in many instances, proven to be a barrier to encouraging victims to come forward for a host of reasons, including intimidation, embarrassment and the fear of ruining one's reputation," Chu said at a news conference.
The change would allow victims to seek medical treatment without automatically causing an investigation. If someone chose to cooperate with an investigation, more people would have access to that person's identity, particularly if the issue reached a court-martial, officials said.
The military also plans to standardize its definitions of sexual assault, harassment and other crimes throughout the services and to create coordinator positions to manage sexual assault cases. It also will augment training on those issues, Chu said.
Air Force Brig. Gen. K.C. McClain, who was assigned in September to oversee the Pentagon's sexual assault policy (search), said the changes should help but were not a "silver bullet."
"There is no overnight solution, and to do this right, it is going to take time," she said.
In a report last May, the Pentagon acknowledged problems in preventing, treating and investigating sexual assaults on military personnel. The task force that wrote the report recommended a series of primarily administrative changes aimed at increasing awareness throughout the ranks of how to respond, both medically and judicially, when a woman in uniform reports being assaulted.
Victims advocacy groups say dozens of women serving in Iraq and Kuwait have reported being assaulted, primarily by male military colleagues.
In 2003, nearly 150 women came forward with accusations that they had been sexually assaulted by fellow cadets at the Air Force Academy since 1993. Many alleged they were then punished for infractions such as drinking or were ignored or ostracized by commanders for speaking out. Two cadets have been charged with sexual assault stemming from the investigation, and the academy has overhauled its top leadership and policies.
Chu said anonymous surveys of military members suggest that sexual assaults are actually declining in the services.