July 15, 2008 – A Pennsylvania lawmaker who says he continues to hear many complaints about sexual harassment and abuse from women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan wants the Defense Department to do more to stop mistreatment and provide more care for victims.
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said in a Monday letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates that harassment and assault of military women, especially in combat zones, is a “scourge” that needs to be eliminated.
Casey is particularly interested in how the military handles complaints from women in the National Guard and reserve, whose cases may be harder to investigate than those of women on full-time active duty and in the federal civilian workforce.
In the letter, Casey said he knows the military is trying to do more, but added: “I am still very troubled by a process that may dissuade many victims from ever coming forward with claims.”
“While I understand the Department of Defense has taken steps to prevent such incidents and punish offenders, I implore you to aggressively seek to change the military culture that allows this problem to fester,” Casey said in the letter to Gates.
Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said she had not seen the letter and could not comment. If Gates responds, he would do so directly to Casey, she said.
One problem, Casey said, is how a woman might react if the alleged offender is her commanding officer — the person assumed to be in charge of investigating complaints under current policy.
“The stories I have heard from women in my home state indicate that there are still serious flaws in the system,” Casey says.
The Pentagon has been trying to be more aggressive in preventing sexual harassment, abuse and assault. A March report by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office said there were 2,688 reports of sexual assault in fiscal 2007, the last year for which records were available, with about 600 of those reports resulting in service members being punished.
About one-third of the cases with punishment involved criminal charges, one-third were nonjudicial punishment and one-third were resolved through some other administrative action, such as discharge from the military.
The number of victims may be greater if women are unwilling to report an assault, Casey said.
The March report does not separate claims based on where they occurred. Casey said he would like to see an analysis comparing combat zone and noncombat allegations, and to see if there are differences in how cases were resolved.