By Donna Miles, American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Defense Department has zero tolerance for sexual
assaults and is making headway in preventing them and taking aggressive
action when they occur, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Navy Adm.
Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress Feb.
Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee about the fiscal
2012 budget request, the leaders responded to a congressman’s question
about a class-action lawsuit filed Feb. 15.
A group of 17 former and current servicemembers claimed that Gates and
former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld took inadequate steps to
prevent them from being raped, sexually assaulted or sexually harassed.
"I have zero tolerance for sexual
assault, and I’ve worked with Chairman Mullen and the Joint
Chiefs and the service secretaries to see if we’re doing all we
can to prevent and respond to sexual assaults."
Robert M. Gates,
Limiting his response in light of the lawsuit, Gates
said the matter is of “grave concern” and said he has worked closely
with Mullen and other military leaders to address the issue. “I have
zero tolerance for sexual assault, and I’ve worked with Chairman Mullen
and the Joint Chiefs and the service secretaries to see if we’re doing
all we can to prevent and respond to sexual assaults,” he said.
Gates said he has had multiple meetings on the subject with senior
leaders over the past four years and established critical areas of
departmental focus. These involve reducing the stigma associated with
reporting incidents, ensuring commanders receive sufficient training,
and providing appropriate training and resources to investigators and
“We’ve hired dozens more investigators, field instructors, prosecutors
and lab examiners,” Gates told the panel. “We’ve spent close to $2
million over the last two years to train our prosecutors so that they’re
better able to be successful. We have expanded the sexual assault
response coordinators and victim advocates tenfold, from 300 to 3,000.
“And we now have those advocates at every base and installation in the
world, including in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he added.
Gates also noted that the percentage of alleged sexual-assault offenders
facing court-martial proceedings has increased from about 30 percent in
2007 to 52 percent in 2010.
In addition, defense officials noted that the incidence rate of sexual
assault has decreased substantially. In 2006, 6.8 percent of women and
1.8 percent of men on active duty indicated experiencing some form of
sexual assault in the year before they were surveyed. Last year, that
dropped to 4.4 percent of women and 0.9 percent of men.
“So we are making headway,” Gates told the House panel. “The fact is, we
aren’t where we should be. It is a grave concern, and we will keep
working on it.”
Mullen echoed Gates’ call for improvements in education and a focus on
leadership to address the problem.
Every unit commander receives sexual assault prevention and response
program training before taking command, officials noted.
But Mullen conceded that sexual assault remains an “extraordinarily
difficult issue.” He acknowledged that “enough anecdotal information”
has come out of Iraq and Afghanistan to be of concern.
The chairman added that it’s “unacceptable” the department has not yet
reached the point where it should be on the issue.
“We still have significant work to do,” he said. “And the leadership is
focused on that.”
Nationwide, sexual assault is one of the nation’s most underreported
crimes, most likely because of victims’ concerns about the stigma
associated with the crime and loss of privacy, Pentagon spokeswoman
Cynthia Smith said.
“It has no place in the U.S. military and cannot be tolerated,” she
said. “The result of these crimes degrades morale, unit cohesion and can
affect mission readiness.”