STUTTGART, Germany — Civilian victims of sexual assault are now able to confidentially report and seek medical care without triggering a criminal investigation as part of a six-month U.S. Army Europe pilot program aimed at encouraging more victims to seek help.

Defense Department policy allows adult civilians to file only "unrestricted" sexual assault reports, which means that official investigations are automatically launched when a complaint is made. Critics say the system discourages some victims from reporting assaults and seeking the support they need.

Servicemembers, meanwhile, have the option of filing "restricted" or "unrestricted" reports. Restricted reporting allows victims to seek appropriate care and services while maintaining confidentiality.

Gen. Carter Ham, USAREUR commander, gained approval for an exception to DOD policy. The pilot program began Monday in Europe.

In a news release, Ham noted that civilian beneficiaries in the States have many options to seek medical care and support without having to involve either military or civilian law enforcement or the judicial process.

"This is not true in Europe," Ham said. "While initial medical treatment may be received at host-nation facilities, follow-on services must be obtained through the military health care system, even if only for referrals to host nation assets."

As a result, civilian victims of sexual assault are forced to choose to endure the investigative process of an unrestricted report or forego vital treatment in exchange for confidentiality, Ham said.

"I really think we need to eliminate this inconsistency," he said.

Earlier this year, the Defense Department’s point person on sexual assault policy called the lack of privacy for civilian spouses "appalling."

Kaye Whitley, director of the military’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said restricted reporting that protects the identity of the victim should be extended beyond just servicemembers.

The Defense Department estimates that less than 10 percent of sexual assaults are reported, but allowing more confidentiality could boost those numbers.

Though the "restricted" option has been available to servicemembers for the last four years only, such reports now account for about 25 percent of all reports, according to DOD data.

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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