WASHINGTON -- External rape counseling services could be used by the U.S. military to increase reporting of sexual assaults within its ranks, according to rape counseling advocate Scott Berkowitz.
The use of external, civilian-run phone hotlines and counseling centers would offer confidentiality that is not available within the military system and act as a check on the military response to sexual assaults, Mr. Berkowitz, president and founder of RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), testified at a hearing sponsored by the Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues.
"Rather than asking the military to allow confidentiality on base, the idea of which meets great resistance from those wary of establishing such a precedent, I think it makes the most sense to offer a confidential, off-base alternative," Mr. Berkowitz said.
The 2002 Armed Forces Sexual Harassment Survey showed that 3% of military women and 1% of military men reported being sexually assaulted in the 12 months before the survey. Between 1995, when the last survey was conducted, and 2002, the sexual assault rate for women fell from 6% to 3%. Other studies, however, have reported different findings. Studies by the Department of Veterans Affairs have found that as many as 29% of women who seek care in VA clinics were victims of sexual assault while in the military, he said.
It's hard to know exactly how vast the problem of sexual assaults is since victims are reluctant to report attacks, especially in the military, where confidentiality is lacking, Mr. Berkowitz said.
"Precise numbers are somewhat elusive, but ultimately unnecessary," Mr. Berkowitz said. "How big is the problem? It's big enough."
The Department of Defense has acknowledged more than 100 incidents of assault and rape in the current theater of operations in the Middle East, said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), cochair of the caucus. Victims there are reporting poor medical treatment, a lack of counseling, and incomplete criminal investigations by senior military officials.
In February, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld established the Department of Defense Task Force on Care for Victims of Sexual Assault to look into the sexual assaults in Iraq and Kuwait and the military's response. The task force is expected to recommend how to improve reporting systems as well as how to better prevent sexual assault. "We are committed to doing all that we can to ensure that the department supports the victim," said Anita K. Blair, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for personnel programs. "Sexual assault is criminal conduct and will not be tolerated in the Department of Defense."
At press time, the task force was scheduled to report its findings by April 30.
To improve its services to victims of sexual assault, the military could take a few lessons from the civilian world, Mr. …