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Officials emphasize zero tolerance of sexual assault

WASHINGTON (AFNEWS) -- Sexual assault is a crime that is incompatible with military values and will not be tolerated within the Defense Department, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness said here April 3.

David S.C. Chu kicked off the month-long DOD observance of sexual assault prevention during a ceremony at the Women in the Military for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

"Sexual assault is devastating to the individuals it victimizes," Dr. Chu said. "It weakens trust and creates strife within our units. It undermines the state of readiness of the armed forces as a whole."

Sexual assault is one of the nation's most underreported crimes. National statistics show that an assault occurs every 90 seconds. One in every six women and one in every 33 men will be the victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime.

"Sexual assault remains a troubling issue in America," Dr. Chu said. "Since the military reflects the society it serves, the issue faces the Department of Defense as well."

This year's DOD campaign is promoting a climate of respect that encourages every servicemember to join in a cooperative effort to end sexual violence, said Kaye Whitley, director for the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.

SAPRO is the Defense Department's single point of accountability for sexual assault policy matters. The organization develops policy and programs to improve prevention efforts, enhance victim support and increase offender accountability by collaborating closely with each military branch.

Dr. Whitley said the goals of this year's campaign are three-fold: fostering awareness of the impact of sexual assault on victims, encouraging community-wide prevention and facilitating awareness of the availability of health services to care and support victims.

In an effort to create a "climate of confidence," Defense Department officials have changed reporting options for sexual assault victims. Beginning in 2005, victims were given an option of restricted or unrestricted reporting.

When filing a restricted report, victims could receive medical care and counseling for assaults without alerting their chain of command or triggering an investigation. DOD officials attribute a 65 percent increase in reporting to this change.

In 2006 there were 756 restricted reports of sexual assault, Dr. Chu said. These were victims who might not have come forward under the old policy, he noted. After receiving initial medical treatment and counseling, Dr. Chu said, 86 of those changed their reports to unrestricted status, allowing the pursuit of those who acted against them.

DOD officials continue to focus on providing education and training for its more than 1 million active-duty servicemembers. During a worldwide conference held by the department this year, more that 350 troops were trained to be "first responders" for victims on their installations.

"We believe that the numbers of reports will continue to rise because we are changing a culture," Dr. Whitley said. "While these numbers make an initial rise, we hope to see a leveling off and eventual elimination of assaults within the department."