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Mikulski urges more action against sexual assaults in the military

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is pressing Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates for details on what, if anything, the Pentagon is doing to reduce the number of sexual assaults against female members of the military.

In a letter released by her office yesterday, the Maryland Democrat asked Gates how he planned to create "an environment of zero tolerance for sexual misconduct of any kind." The senator said she wanted to know what steps the Pentagon is taking to address "the unique stress and mental health needs" of women in uniform - "especially those who have suffered sexual assault."

A spokeswoman for Mikulski said the letter was prompted by a St. Louis Post-Dispatch report that more than 500 U.S. servicewomen had been sexually assaulted in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002. The aide said Mikulski was not available to comment yesterday on her letter.

"In a place where our troops rely on each other everyday for their safety, I am troubled that women serving on the battlefield must also be on guard against sexual assault from their fellow soldiers," wrote Mikulski, who is a member of the Defense Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "This culture of fear and personal insecurity does not belong in our military and must not be tolerated."

A Pentagon spokeswoman said Gates would respond directly to Mikulski. The spokeswoman, Cynthia Smith, declined to comment further on the letter.

It does not address conditions at the U.S. Naval Academy, where Mikulski has served for 20 years on the Board of Visitors. Mikulski's spokeswoman said she pressed Academy Superintendent Rodney P. Rempt in 2005 for "best steps to move forward" after a report on sexual harassment and violence at the service academies, and has been satisfied with information she has received in confidential briefings. Rempt stepped down as superintendent last week.

According to the military, there were 2,947 reports of sexual assault involving a service member as either subject or victim in 2006, up from 2,374 the previous year. The figures include not only rape, but also nonconsensual sodomy, indecent assault and other acts.

Officials attribute the 24-percent increase at least in part to moves to make it easier for victims to report assaults. The Pentagon created a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office in 2005, and has encouraged victims to come forward by allowing them to report assaults to a health care provider, victim advocate or therapist without involving law enforcement.

Of the 2,947 reports last year, 670 were "restricted reports," kept confidential to allow victims to get treatment without submitting to an investigation, according to the military. The rest were unrestricted reports that were referred to law enforcement for further action.

The Pentagon also has sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates, and now requires the services to provide an immediate, trained response to any victim at any time in any location.

The Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office trained more than 350 sexual assault response coordinators last year, according to the military. The office is scheduled to host a sexual assault prevention summit next month to develop a strategic plan and strategy for preventing sexual assaults.

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