House panel blasts DOD over response to sexual assault claims

Ingrid Torres, a Red Cross worker who was raped by an Air Force doctor while working at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea, testifies before Congress Thursday about ways to improve sexual assualt reporting and prosecution in the military.


By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 1, 2008

WASHINGTON - House members infuriated by slow progress on the military's response to sexual assault claims accused defense leaders of a cover-up and tossed a senior department official from a Thursday hearing on the issue.

"Years of inaction at the DOD continue to speak volumes about senior leadership's commitment to our servicemembers and civil servants," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. "When it comes to sexual assault in the military, the DOD has absolutely no credibility.

"I really hope heads roll."

Military officials at the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing said improvements have been made in training and crime reporting options for victims in recent years, but acknowledged more work needs to be done.

"Even one sexual assault violates the very essence of what it means to be a soldier," said Lt. Gen. Michael Rochelle, deputy chief of staff for the Army. "I can assure you the Army treats this very, very seriously."

But lawmakers questioned that, noting that defense officials are two years behind on convening a Congressionally ordered task force to examine the issue, and have failed to establish a departmentwide database of cases to better track complaints.

A GAO survey of 14 military installations earlier this year found that half of sexual assaults in the ranks go unreported, despite new policies designed to protect victims' privacy.

Committee members had subpoenaed Kaye Whitley, director of the Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, to testify at Thursday's hearing, but defense officials instructed her to stay away from the hearing.

Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Michael Dominguez told committee members the decision was designed to emphasize his responsibility in the area of sexual assault reporting, and not an attempt to keep information away from the representatives. In written testimony, he listed improvements and shortfalls by the department in recent years.

But subcommittee chairman Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., dismissed him from the hearing before he could give any testimony, calling the decision not to have Whitley testify "willful and blatant disrespect" for the lawmakers and sexual assault victims.

He said committee members will consider seeking legal action against both Whitley and Dominguez, noting no legal exemption for them ignoring the subpoena.

Defense statistics show that sexual assault complaints in the services dropped 9 percent from 2006 to 2007, to 2,688. But Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., said she believes that has more to do with changes in definitions of sexual assault within the department than an actual drop.

Witnesses told the panel that the reporting process remains adversarial, often pitting victims of crimes against the perceived good of the unit.

Mary Lauterbach told lawmakers she believes her daughter Maria would be alive today if Marine Corps officials took her rape allegations more seriously.

Maria, a lance corporal stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., was eight months pregnant when she was murdered in December. Corps officials have charged Cpl. Cesar Laurean, a fellow Marine whom she accused of sexual assault, with the crime.

Lauterbach said officials failed to transfer her daughter off base after the rape accusation, and ignored threats made against her.

The night she was killed Maria was ordered to attend a unit Christmas party which Laurean would also attend.

Ingrid Torres, a Red Cross worker who was raped by an Air Force doctor while working at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea, said victim services vary wildly from base to base, and often involve different standards for different victims.

"Civilians are not afforded the same protections as active-duty military personnel after suffering an assault," she said, noting confusion among different investigators as to what the Air Force's responsibility was. "If I knew then what I know now, I can't say for sure I would have reported it."

Members of the committee said they were appalled, noting that they had heard similar stories from constituents.

"We keep thinking that the DOD would get it by now, but they don't," said Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio. "It's alarming."

Mary Lauterbach testifies before Cognress Thursday about her daughter Maria, a lance corporal who investigators say was murdered in December by a fellow Marine she had accused of raping her. Her mother said she believes her daughter would be alive today if Marine investigators had been quicker and more sympathetic in handling the rape accusation.