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ARLINGTON, Va. — Due to serious policy and training deficiencies, the Defense Department has failed to protect servicemembers from sexual assaults or to provide adequate medical and mental treatment to those victimized, a defense task force has found.

The committee’s 99-page report, released Thursday, “found that with few exceptions, the current policies and programs that are in place within the department did not address sexual assault,” said task force leader Ellen Embrey, deputy assistant secretary of defense for force health protection and readiness, who briefed reporters.

“More often, it addressed sexual harassment. And there seemed to be some confusion among the population about the difference between harassment and assault,” she said.

Embrey headed the six-woman, two-man task force formed after reports of rapes and sexual assaults surfaced earlier this year from troops in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan.

In their investigation, troops reported not knowing where to turn for help and expressed fear of reprisal or that their identities wouldn’t be kept confidential if they come forward, while commanders aren’t even sure what might constitute sexual assault, Embrey said.

The task force, named “Care for Victims of Sexual Assaults,” included military and civilian experts in medical, personnel, social services, legal and criminal investigation issues.

In the DOD, there were 901 reported alleged cases of sexual assault in 2002, and 1,012 in 2003, according to the report. Of those, 118 (24 in 2002 and 94 in 2003) were reported from the Central Command area of responsibility, which includes Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan.

Some of the attacks were committed by Iraqi civilians and non-U.S. coalition members, and no policies were in place before March to deal with such incidents, Embrey said.

The problem persists, in spite of the department’s history of struggling with reports of sexual misconduct, including the 1991 Tailhook scandal, Aberdeen Proving Ground rape reports in 1996 and recent reports from the U.S. Air Force Academy and Sheppard Air Force Base.

“I’m not sure there was a breakdown here,” said David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. “I think what you see is a department that is continually focused on doing better against these standards. In fact, although comparisons are very difficult, as I read the evidence, it’s not clear we’re all that different in terms of incidents raised from civil society.”

The number of incidents is likely on the low side since sexual assault “is a terribly underreported offense,” Chu said.

Some of the problem rests with commanders — who didn’t know how to deal with the issues of sexual assault, didn’t want to deal with it, or didn’t even know what it was.

“We asked the victims to provide to us how the system failed her, and it varied,” Embrey said. “In many cases, the commanders were very supportive of their circumstance. It was the process of investigation and the backlog in the forensic analysis, or the failure to provide timely legal assistance that ended up being a problem for some of them.

“In other cases, the commander was insensitive to the fact that the assault was an assault. Some ignored it. Some responded to it by saying, ‘Oh, we’ll get you the help you need.’ When they came back to the unit a couple days later, they’d say, ‘OK, you’ve been to the doc. You’re ready to go.’ Just lack of sensitivity in some cases.”

The task force made nine recommendations for change, from creating a single office to write policy to making it easier for victims to report incidents and better methods of prosecuting offenders.

The full report can be found at: www.defenselink.mil/news/May2004/d20040513SATFReport.pdf

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