WASHINGTON — Lawmakers criticized Pentagon leaders Thursday for what some said was a lackadaisical attitude toward sexual assault within the military.

“Somehow, the Department of Defense has not taken this seriously over the years,” said Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., at the hearing on sexual assault prevention and response in the armed services.

In the past 15 years, the Pentagon has conducted at least 18 studies on sexual assault, and yet still is grappling with the problem, said Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., chairman of the Total Force Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.

“I can’t say what … happened with those previous 17 studies, but whatever happened, it wasn’t good enough,” McHugh said during Thursday’s hearing on the issue. “I think we’re at a crisis point here. We’re at a juncture in which we’re in real danger of losing the faith and trust of the female contingency, and that would be a catastrophe.”

The U.S. military has fallen short in providing victims of sexual assault — particularly those in combat zones — the medical and counseling care they need, said David Chu, DOD undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness.

But he disagreed the department has ignored the issue, and pointed out results of two DOD surveys that, while primarily focused on sexual harassment, showed that reports of sexual assault by women declined from 6 percent in 1995 to 3 percent in 2002.

“Historically, the military has led the way on social change … but this is an area where you’ve fallen behind,” said Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark.

“Sexual assault is a blight on our society, and a blight for which, unfortunately, the military is not immune,” Chu answered.

Female U.S. troops, in particular, still are being victimized the Iraq by other U.S. servicemembers, in spite of recent public focus on controversy, Sanchez said. Last week, she said she heard from two female Marines who said they’d been raped, “reports the Pentagon wasn’t even aware of,” she said.

And although Army leaders in Washington have assured her that the combat service hospitals and clinics in Iraq and Kuwait have enough trained personnel and are stocked adequately with rape kits and emergency contraception to prevent pregnancies, “that’s not what I’m hearing,” Sanchez told the panel.

The DOD has policies addressing sexual harassment, but not sexual assault, a key source of the problem, Chu said.

And, he added, personnel such as commanders, legal personnel, law enforcement, mental and medical expert combined “were not functioning as a team to provide needed support to victims. And as a result, many times victims had to find out where to go, and then take the initiative to go from place to place to place to get he help they needed.”

Ellen Embrey, DOD deputy assistant secretary for Force Health Protection and Readiness, said that while commanders were concerned about they issue, “they often were not sufficiently educated, trained or sensitive to the needs of sexual assault victims.”

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