Military victims of sexual assault will be able to speak in confidence with medical professionals and victims' rights advocates for the first time under a new sexual-assault policy being developed by the Pentagon, officials said Tuesday.
The policy change, designed to persuade more victims to come forward, is one of several being instituted by the Pentagon after a series of sexual-assault scandals in Iraq and at the Air Force Academy.
The Pentagon also will establish clear, military-wide definitions of sexual assault and sexual harassment, bolster education and training about sexual-assault prevention and response, and designate a sexual-assault response coordinator at every U.S. military installation around the world. The policy will apply to all military services, as well as to military service academies and other academic institutions.
"We want to create a different climate where our people feel comfortable coming forward," said David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
But even as the policy changes were made public, victims' rights groups were expressing skepticism that they would work. Victims' advocates said that as long as the Pentagon insisted on policing and investigating itself, rather than ceding those tasks to independent bodies, sexual assault would continue to be pervasive in military culture.
"It will not make a difference," said Dorothy Mackay, a former Air Force officer who is executive director of Survivors Take Action Against Military Personnel, or STAAMP, a national advocacy group for military sexual-assault victims.
"It is nothing more than for public perception that they are doing something," Mackay said. "The Pentagon does not have the ability to change its ways. . . . We can't expect the same system that's been allowing this for decades to change overnight."
Under existing policies, the only officer who can promise confidentiality to an alleged victim of sexual assault is a military chaplain. Under the Pentagon's proposals, which have been submitted to Congress for review, medics and victims' advocates also could assure a complainant's confidentiality. Commanding officers no longer would be able to learn victims' identities without consent.
The lack of confidential reporting has "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. The change would permit victims to seek medical treatment without triggering an automatic investigation.
In announcing the changes, Chu acknowledged what the Pentagon said in a report last May: that the current system was inadequate in preventing, treating and investigating sexual assaults of military personnel.
"The department understands that our traditional system does not afford sexual-assault victims the care and support they need across the board, and we are moving aggressively to put new systems in place to address this shortcoming," Chu said.
Victims' advocacy groups say dozens of women serving in Iraq and Kuwait have reported being assaulted, primarily by male military colleagues. Last year, Pentagon figures showed that more than 100 service personnel in the Persian Gulf region _ including Iraq and Afghanistan _ reported being sexually assaulted. Military officials did not update the figures Tuesday.
WHY CHANGE POLICY?
In a report in May, the Pentagon acknowledged problems in preventing, treating and investigating sexual assaults on military personnel. For example, nearly 150 women came forward in 2003 with accusations that they had been sexually assaulted by fellow cadets at the Air Force Academy since 1993. The task force that wrote the report recommended a series of changes.
_ ASSOCIATED PRESS