Despite efforts to combat the problem, a disturbing new Pentagon report released Tuesday estimates over 26,000 servicemembers were sexually assaulted in 2012, a dramatic increase over the 19,000 the year before. Only 3,374 victims actually reported sexual assaults during the same period.
With so few attacks reported, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) is leading a new effort to combat the “epidemic.”
“Not only are we subjecting our men and women to this disgusting epidemic, but we’re also failing to provide the victims with any meaningful support system once they have fallen victim to these attacks,” said Murray in a speech Tuesday on the Senate floor.
Murray introduced a new measure with Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) aimed at reducing sexual assaults and helping victims. According to Murray, the “Combating Military Sexual Assault Act of 2013” would close a number of gaps that exist in current law and expand on previous efforts taken by the Department of Defense.
The bill would provide victims of sexual assault with a special military lawyer to help them throughout the process, and enhance responsibilities and authority for the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. It would also prohibit sexual contact between instructors and trainees during and 30 days after basic training.
“It is absolutely unconscionable that a fellow servicemember, the person you rely on to have your back and to be there for you, would commit such a terrible crime,” Murray said. “It is simply appalling they could commit such a personal violation of their brother or sister in uniform. Even worse is the prevalence of these crimes.”
The report and Murray’s proposal come just two days after an officer heading Air Force sexual assault prevention programs was arrested in Arlington, Va., and charged with sexual battery. It also follows a heated debate over whether commanders should be stripped of the authority to overturn military jury verdicts, such as one officer did in a recent sexual assault conviction.
The Pentagon also continues to investigate a number of other scandals, including the probe of more than 30 Air Force instructors for assaults on trainees at a Texas base.
President Barack Obama delivered a sharp rebuke Tuesday, saying he has no tolerance for the problem, and he said he talked to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel about it. He said that any military member found guilty of sexual assault should be held accountable, prosecuted, and fired.
“I don’t want just more speeches or awareness programs or training, or ultimately folks look the other way,” he said. “We’re going to have to not just step up our game, we have to exponentially step up our game to go after this hard.”
Murray’s effort also seeks to improve treatment and services for members of the reserves. She recounted a “very disturbing story” of a female National Guard member from Washington state who was denied care after reporting a sexual assault because she was not on active duty at the time of the attack.
“When one of our men or women in uniform is the victim of sexual assault, and they have the courage to come forward and ask for help, the answer can never be, ‘Sorry, there are regulations and there is nothing I can do for you,'” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report