- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2015

As Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter takes over a department plagued by budget cuts and increased threats to national security, lawmakers are urging him not to forget about the battle to end sexual assault within the military.

A bipartisan group of more than 50 lawmakers sent a letter last week to Mr. Carter saying that while previous secretaries have made progress, there is still a lot of work to be done, especially the “unacceptably high” rate of service members who face retaliation for reporting an attack.

“We respectfully request that as secretary of defense, you continue the commitment shown by your predecessors to addressing sexual assault in the military, bringing the full weight of your office to bear on improving the military’s response to sexual assault and preventing it from happening in the first place,” wrote the lawmakers, led by Reps. Mike Turner, Ohio Republican, and Niki Tsongas, Massachusetts Democrat. “Our service members must feel safe in reporting sexual assault if there is to be true progress toward ending it.”

While Mr. Carter made no specific mention of making sexual assault prevention a priority in his first message to Defense Department employees, he did promise to focus on the “well-being, safety and dignity” of troops, civilian employees and their families.

An independent report released in December found that sexual assaults across the entire military were decreasing while the reporting of the crimes was up, largely seen as a positive step forward by advocates and members of Congress.

Despite those improvements, however, the report from Rand Corp., an independent, government-supported research center, found that more than 60 percent of those who reported a crime faced retaliation, mostly from peers, though occasionally from supervisors.

A Pentagon report released last week found problems at the military academies, too, where 43 percent of women and 36 percent of men faced retaliation for reporting a sexual assault during the last school year. Fear of retaliation also stopped about 1 in 5 alleged victims from even reporting the crime at the academies, the report said.

When questioned about the high rate of retaliation in his Senate confirmation hearing earlier this month, Mr. Carter told lawmakers he was committed to fixing the problem.

“You can count on that I’m attentive to this issue of retaliation and determined to do something about it,” he said.

Members of Congress are also trying to push changes legislatively.

Rep. Jackie Speier, California Democrat, introduced a bill last week that would require service members convicted of sex-related crimes in the military to register with sex offender databases that would be available to civilian law enforcement and the public.

“They shouldn’t have to wait for a convicted rapist to re-offend before they get the information they need to keep their children safe. This is a frightening loophole and it must be closed,” Ms. Speier said in a statement.

Her bill would establish a Defense Department-wide sex offender registry and require convicted troops to register for it before being released from prison, similar to practices for civilian sex offenders. It would also ensure local law enforcement and the public had access to the registry.

Under current law, military sex offenders are told to register with local authorities after getting out of the service, but many never do so. A recent report found that almost 1 in 5 military sexual assault offenders do not appear in any public registry, Ms. Speier said.

“This is a national security issue,” said Col. Don Christensen, a retired Air Force chief prosecutor and president of Protect Our Defenders. “Because the military doesn’t track sex offenders within the ranks, American citizens have been assaulted, raped and even killed because these perpetrators are able to operate in our society without notice.”

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