WASHINGTON - U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has ordered an investigation of sexual assault by troops against female colleagues in war zones as the Pentagon yesterday confirmed 88 allegations of sexual misconduct in the past year.
"Commanders at every level have a duty to take appropriate steps to prevent sexual assaults, protect victims and hold those who commit offenses accountable," Rumsfeld wrote in a letter dated Thursday to David S.C. Chu, the undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness. "Your review should address the reporting of sexual assaults, including the availability of private channels for reporting such issues within combat theaters."
Rumsfeld said he was "concerned about recent reports regarding allegations of sexual assaults on service members deployed to Iraq and Kuwait," and ordered the review completed within 90 days.
While the figures reported by the Pentagon affect less than one-sixth of 1 percent of the women deployed to the war zones, studies have shown higher levels of sexual assault in the military than in the civilian world. Eight percent of the women who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War reported being sexually assaulted during their deployment - 10 times the comparable civilian level at the time, according to a civilian survey published in 1998.
A Pentagon spokeswoman confirmed that over the past year, the Army has fielded 80 reports of sexual misconduct, a category that includes rape and sexual harassment, in war zones under the U.S. Central Command. The Air Force reported seven allegations over the same period, while the Marine Corps reported one allegation of sexual assault, a narrower category than misconduct. The Navy reported no sexual assaults in the region over the past year.
Members of the Congressional Women's Caucus and Democratic Rep. Dennis Moore of Kansas had called for an investigation after at least one victim reported being pressured by superior officers to drop charges against a fellow soldier.
The incident was first described last month in the Denver Post.
Yesterday's announcement underscored the difficulty of persuading assault victims to come forward; some surveys show three in four servicewomen did not report assaults to a ranking officer.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.