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Commanders must lead efforts to combat sexual assaults

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (June 04, 2004) -- The Air Force director of manpower and reserve affairs testified June 3 before Congress during a hearing on sexual-assault prevention and response within the armed forces.

Michael L. Dominguez told members of the House Armed Service Committee total force subcommittee about efforts the service had made to solve the problem of sexual assault within the Air Force.

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"Air Force leaders have been working this problem hard for the last 18 months," Mr. Dominguez said. "Our efforts began in January 2003 (when Secretary of the Air Force James G. Roche received) an e-mail from an Air Force Academy cadet victim. Air Force leaders moved decisively … to correct problems at our academy through the ‘Agenda for Change.’"

The directives embodied in the Agenda for Change, which began in late March 2003, were designed to ensure the academy is a safe, secure environment for cadets. The directives came in the wake of a series of reports of sexual assault at the Colorado Springs, Colo., institution.

Mr. Dominguez also told committee members the service had launched an Air Force-wide investigation into its sexual-assault policies, practices and programs.

"Air Force assessment teams visited 85 installations including (those in) Southwest Asia," Mr. Dominguez said. "We reached out to over 100,000 personnel through interviews, surveys and focus groups. Even before our assessment was complete, Secretary Roche and (Air Force Chief of Staff) Gen. John P. Jumper reacted to correct discovered deficiencies."

One of the efforts initiated by the Air Force's two most senior leaders was the establishment of improved procedures to coordinate support and assistance for sexual-assault victims. Those improvements, Mr. Dominguez said, were modeled off a program already in place at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

He said the results of the assessment were consistent with the findings of a task force led by Ellen Embrey, deputy assistant secretary of defense for force health protection and readiness, and with data from research sponsored by the Department of Justice.

Mr. Dominguez highlighted for committee members key findings from the Air Force assessment.

"Sexual assault covers a broader range of behaviors than rape," he said. "Violent assault by strangers does occur, but the larger sexual-assault problem involves young people who know each other. Alcohol is frequently a factor."

One committee member suggested the combination of alcohol and young servicemembers with "raging hormones" allowed for potentially "explosive" situations.

There was agreement at the hearing among service witnesses and legislators that education was key to creating a culture change within the services that would bring about a solution to sexual assaults in the military.

Mr. Dominguez told committee members that commanders would be central to such a culture change.

"Our attack on sexual assault must be a broad-spectrum campaign aimed at changing or eliminating attitudes, behaviors and beliefs that can be exploited by sexual offenders," Mr. Dominguez said. "Changing culture will require a long-term sustained effort by all of us. In the armed forces, commanders are, will and must be at the center of the change effort."

Mr. Dominguez also said the assessment indicated there are sometimes complex circumstances that make it very difficult to prove and prosecute sexual offenders.

"Perpetrators often don’t meet society's stereotypes and are therefore difficult to detect," Mr. Dominguez said. "Finally, barriers to the reporting of crimes by the victims are substantial."

Also central to the hearing was discussion about the Uniform Code of Military Justice. One congresswoman referred to the code's Article 120, titled "Rape and Carnal Knowledge," as "anachronistic," saying it was no longer adequate.

The momentum for discussing the effectiveness of the UCMJ in regard to sexual assault is a bill that aims to amend Article 120 with the intent of bringing military sexual-assault crimes into parallel with federal sexual-assault crimes. The bill, titled the "Military Sexual Assault Crimes Revision Act of 2004," was introduced in the House on April 1 by Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California.

Despite claims the UCMJ may be inadequate in providing prosecutors the muscle needed to bring justice to bear upon sexual offenders, Mr. Dominguez told committee members there are law enforcers who believe the code is even more powerful than what is available to some civilian authorities.

He cited a case in Wichita Falls, Texas, the community surrounding Sheppard AFB, where law enforcement favors sexual offenders being prosecuted under the military justice system over prosecution in the civil courts.

"The sheriff of Wichita Falls … knows the UCMJ provides our commanders a richer menu of tools to be able to deal out justice than he has available to him," Mr. Dominguez said.

Also discussed in the hearing were the resources available to sexual-assault victims in deployed locations, and the relationship between sexual abuse of prisoners in Iraq and sexual assaults within the ranks.

Service witnesses agreed to provide legislators with a breakdown of what resources are available to victims in deployed locations. That breakdown would include information about the availability of rape counseling services, abortion services for rape victims, "rape kits" for collecting crucial DNA evidence for use in the prosecution of sexual offenders and "emergency birth control."

Rep. John M. McHugh of New York, the subcommittee chairmen, told service witnesses he believed the military had reached a crucial point in the process of eliminating sexual assaults within the services.

"We are at a crisis point here, at a juncture," said Rep. McHugh. "I think we are in real danger of losing the faith and trust of the female contingent of the U.S. military. That would be a catastrophe. We must have in our hearts the intent to do the right thing."

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