WASHINGTON — The Defense Department’s self-described "crusade against sexual assault" is more like a battle it’s reluctant to fight, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Four years after being ordered by Congress to formally address sexual assaults in the ranks, a military task force met publicly for the first time in August to discuss the subject, one month after the Pentagon’s point woman on the issue, Dr. Kaye Whitley, snubbed a subpoena to update Congress on the military’s progress.
"Instead of partnering with Congress, senior figures in [the Defense Department] chose to prevent, for reasons beyond our comprehension, Dr. Whitley from testifying [in July]," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., said during Wednesday’s hearing. "This is one of many reasons why DOD has no credibility with me when it comes to protecting our women in uniform."
"The [Defense Department] is not taking action on its own," said Brenda Farrell, the GAO director who wrote a 12-page report introduced at the hearing by the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs.
Whitley was at Wednesday’s hearing to explain the Pentagon’s response.
A Pentagon spokeswoman, Cynthia Smith, said Friday that Whitley was unavailable for comment and that her testimony, which included the "crusade" remark, spoke for itself.
The military defines sexual assault as intentional, unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature.
For the 21 months ending Sept. 30, 2007, there were 2,688 sexual assaults reported involving military members, according to the Defense Department.
Of those, 1,182 suspected violators were referred to their commanders for possible action, of which 181 went to court-martial. Another 572 were awaiting disposition.
The GAO’s report concluded that the military has not planned adequately to deal with sexual assaults among deployed personnel, especially those remotely based, given inconsistent training on how rape victims could find assistance, failed to provide enough counseling for sex-crime victims, and even met resistance from certain commanders.
"At one installation, they put us off and put us off and put us off, and once the [GAO] survey team got there, we wondered how much prepping [for the visit] had been taking place," Farrell said.
Whitley, director of the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, in her opening statement listed steps the military has taken, including the establishment of a policy with cornerstones of care for victims, prevention through training and education, and system accountability.
"I have no doubt that we are well on the way to meeting our goal of reducing the number of sexual assaults and eventually eliminating this crime from the military," Whitley told the subcommittee.
The hearing also featured remarks by Ingrid Torres, an employee of American Red Cross who was raped by an installation doctor at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea, and Mary Lauterbach, whose eight-months-pregnant daughter, Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, was allegedly murdered near Camp Lejeune, N.C., by a fellow Marine who’d been previously accused of raping her.
North Carolina officials said Thursday that a Mexican court has approved returning the wanted Marine, Cpl. Cesar Laurean.
In 2005, the military enacted a "restricted" method of reporting rapes — where treatment and counseling are given but the victim’s chain of command is not immediately notified nor a criminal investigation launched — in addition to the military’s traditional method of the victim reporting the rape to her commander, which resulted in "unrestricted" investigation.
While sensitivity toward the victim is being addressed, Farrell said, preventing and resolving sexual assault cases has not.
"[Victim care] is a good place to start," Farrell said, "but they still have to look at the totality of it."
Women deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, Farrell said, live in circumstances that offer less personal security. Bases are often blacked out at night, and there are fewer female "walking buddies" for walking in the darkness, for example, from the fitness center to quarters.
The GAO found that it could take days for criminal investigators to show up at a base in Iraq where a rape had occurred, Farrell said.
Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., said during the hearing that he hoped it would spark the DOD to direct more attention and urgency toward its sexual assault program, as opposed to ordering its employees to ignore subpoenas to discuss the topic.
"What kind of message does [Whitley’s] and the department’s unwillingness, until now, to allow testimony, send to our men and women in uniform?" Tierney said.
"Do they take Dr. Whitley’s office seriously? Is she being muzzled or is the department hiding something?
"Let me be very clear. Preventing and responding to sexual assault perpetrated against our soldiers is simply much too important to be playing a game of cat and mouse."
On Friday, Tierney told Stars and Stripes that only there were only seven people on Whitley’s staff to devise and implement the military’s sexual assault program.
The GAO, Tierney said, was going to work with Whitley and her office to get a plan in place, implement it, provide guidance and establish measurable benchmarks.