A congressional subcommittee led by Salem Democrat John Tierney recently learned that the U.S. military has been slow to prevent sexual assaults and to improve its handling of such cases involving servicemen and servicewomen.
Tierney convened the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, once in July and again last Wednesday, to publicly scrutinize the way the military has dealt with sexual assaults since a 2004 law led to the creation of the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
"The military really hasn't given this (issue) the kind of attention that is warranted," Tierney said during an interview on Friday.
Ingrid Torres, an American Red Cross employee who was stationed at military bases, was raped by an installation doctor at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea. She told the subcommittee in July that she received care from victim advocates and health specialists who had little to no knowledge of the military's response procedures.
Mary Lauterbach, mother of Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, testified that she was still trying to get answers about her daughter's rape and subsequent death by a fellow soldier.
The Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office said there had been 2,688 reports of sexual assault involving military service members in 2007. But the Government Accountability Office found that the number might not reflect the true number of incidents.
At the 14 military installations where the GAO administered a survey, 103 service members indicated that they had been sexually assaulted within the preceding 12 months. Of these, 52 service members indicated that they did not report the assault.
The impetus for the hearings came from fellow lawmakers who felt the military was giving "lip service" to the problem but not seriously addressing it, Tierney said. For example, the military promised in 2006 it would form a task force to oversee the implementation of various prevention and response protocols. But the task force met for the first time this August, after Tierney's subcommittee's July hearing.
The subcommittee learned that the mental health resources provided victims were in some cases inadequate and that some victims didn't report an assault because they felt nothing would be done about it or feared it would hurt their careers, Tierney said.
The July hearing took a strange turn when Dr. Kaye Whitley, director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, ignored a subpoena and failed to show up. She later said that she was following an order from a superior who told her not to testify.
According to Tierney, the military needs to make sure:
Every member is aware of his or her rights.
Commanding officers are well-versed in the prosecutorial and counseling options available to victims.
A better job is done ensuring prevention and response procedures reach overseas and remote bases.
The task force does its job of oversight.
He said his subcommittee intended to keep tabs on progress. In the Senate, Sen. Hillary Clinton has asked that the Armed Services Committee take up the issue. The country owes the men and women who serve better, Tierney added.
"They certainly make sacrifices for us," he said, "and we need to make sure that we give the proper attention and care to this issue."