SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA, January 18, 2012, DOD News Briefing from the Pentagon:
When I was sworn into the office of secretary of defense, I said that I had no higher responsibility than to protect those who are protecting America. Our men and women in uniform put their lives on the line every day to try to keep America safe. We have a moral duty to keep them safe from those who would attack their dignity and their honor.
That's why I've been so concerned by the problem of sexual assault in the military.
Sexual assault has no place in this department. It is an affront to the basic American values we defend, and it is a stain on the good honor of the great majority of our troops and their -- and our families.
As leaders of this department, we're committed to doing everything we can to ensure the safety, dignity and well-being of our people. These men and these women who are willing to fight and to die, if necessary, to protect and serve our country -- they're entitled to much better protection. Their families and their dependents also sacrifice and serve and so, for that reason, we have to spare no effort in order to protect them against this heinous crime.
The number of sexual assaults in the military is unacceptable. Last year 3,191 reports of sexual assault came in. But I have to tell you that because we assume that this is a very underreported crime, the estimate is that the actually is closer 19,000.
One sexual assault is one too many. Since taking this office, I've made it a top priority to do everything we can to reduce and prevent sexual assault, to make victims of sexual assault feel secure enough to report this crime without fear of retribution or harm to their career, and to hold the perpetrators appropriately accountable.
In all these efforts, I've worked closely with the military and civilian leadership of the department. I've discussed this subject with the service secretaries, with the chairman and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and all of the service chiefs. The latest meeting was as recently as last week. They completely share my sense of urgency and commitment to addressing this problem, as do members of Congress with whom I consult regularly on this issue.
To ensure that this issue received proper visibility and attention within the department, a two-star officer, Air Force Major General Mary Kay Hertog, was appointed to serve as director of the department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office last August. General Hertog has done a great job coordinating a DOD-wide effort to address this serious and complex problem.
There are no easy answers, but that makes it all the more essential for us to devote our energy and our attention to trying to confront this crime.
Over the holidays, we announced two new policies that provide greater support for the victims of sexual assault. The first policy gives victims who report a sexual assault an option to quickly transfer from their unit or installation to protect them from possible harassment and remove them from proximity to the alleged perpetrator.
Second, we will also require the retention of written reports of sexual assault to law enforcement to be retained for a period of 50 years. The reason for that is to have these records available so that it will make it easier for veterans to file a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs at a later date.
These two policies are the first of a broader package of proposals that we will be presenting in the coming months, many of which will require legislative action by the Congress.
Today, I want to announce some additional steps that we are taking. First, I've directed the establishment of a DOD sexual assault advocate certification program, which will require our sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates to obtain a credential aligned with national standards. This will help ensure that the victims of sexual assault receive the best care from properly trained and credentialed professionals who can provide crucial assistance from the moment an assault is committed.
Second, I have directed the department to expand our support to assault victims to include military spouses and adult military dependents, who will now be able -- this was not the case before -- they will now be able to file confidential reports and receive the services of a victim advocate and a sexual assault response coordinator.
In addition, we're going to ensure that DOD civilians stationed abroad and DOD U.S. citizen contractors in combat areas receive emergency care and the help of a response coordinator and a victim advocate.
Third, because sexual assault cases are some of the toughest cases to investigate and to prosecute, I've increased funding for investigators and for judge advocates to receive specialized training.
We're also putting in place one integrated data system. The data systems, frankly, were spread among the various services. We're going to put them together into one data system in order to track sexual assault reports and monitor case management so that we'll have a comprehensive database for information available later this year.
And finally, in addition to our focus on taking care of victims and holding perpetrators appropriately accountable, we've been focusing on what more can we do to try to prevent sexual assault? Our leaders in uniform, officers and enlisted, are on the front lines of this effort; they have to be. We must all be leaders here.
For this reason, I'm directing an assessment, due in 120 days, on how we train our commanding officers and senior enlisted leaders on sexual assault prevention and response and what we can do to strengthen that training. It's important that everyone in uniform be alert to this problem and have the leadership training to help prevent these crimes from occurring.
These are important steps. But I want to be clear that this is an ongoing effort that will remain a top priority. There's much more work to be done to prevent this crime. And we will be announcing additional initiatives over the coming weeks and months.
Let me close by speaking directly to the victims of sexual assault in this department. I deeply regret that such crimes occur in the U.S. military. And I will do all I can to prevent these sexual assaults from occurring in the Department of Defense. I'm committed to providing you the support and resources you need and to taking whatever steps are necessary to keep what happened to you from happening to others.
The United States military has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault. And we will hold the perpetrators appropriately accountable. I expect everybody in this department to live up to the high standards that we have set and to treat each other with dignity and with respect.
In a military force, where the promise is to help each other in battle and to leave nobody behind, that promise must begin by honoring the dignity of every person on or off the battlefield.