Law Encourages Reporting of Military Sexual Assault

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A new confidentiality law goes into effect Tuesday aimed at encouraging more military personnel to report sexual harassment and assault. Nearly 1,300 military personnel reported being sexually assaulted in 2004.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The US military faces a requirement today to offer more support to victims of sex crimes. A confidentiality law takes effect today. It is supposed to make it easier for people to report sexual harassment and assault. Even under the old rules, almost 1,300 military personnel reported being sexually assaulted last year alone. The problem is pervasive enough that authorities gave it a name: military sexual trauma. Kristin Wiederholt reports from San Francisco member station KALW.

KRISTIN WIEDERHOLT reporting:

A middle-aged woman sits in the community room of a veterans housing complex in San Francisco. She describes an evening at the military compound where she was stationed in the 1970s when her commanding officer came to her door.

Unidentified Woman: I know what he want, and I don't want nothing to happen to me or my ...(unintelligible). I don't know--you know, there was a point where, `Damn, I don't know what to do,' because he wouldn't go.

WIEDERHOLT: She says he raped her and, still, she had to report to him for duty the next day.

Unidentified Woman: But this was the ultimate, like, attack on me, and I didn't have the strength, the backbone, or whatever you call it, to do anything.

WIEDERHOLT: She never told anyone about the attack. It's only now, nearly 30 years later, that she's getting help. Since the Tailhook scandal in 1991, the Department of Defense has strengthened its efforts on protecting its women from sexual harassment and assault, but many people, men and women, are still afraid to report the problem when it happens. Cheryl Winnell(ph) is a nurse practitioner at the San Francisco VA.

Ms. CHERYL WINNELL (Nurse Practitioner, San Francisco Veterans Administration): The reporting statistics are very low for women in the military. In women veteran populations, they often are much higher.

WIEDERHOLT: The problem of underreporting is so big that, back in 2000, Congress mandated that all veterans be screened for military sexual trauma, or MST. Winnell demonstrates what happens now the first time anyone comes into a VA clinic.

Ms. WINNELL: So this is the set of questions that comes up for every patient: When you were in the military, did you ever receive uninvited or unwanted sexual attention, such as...

WIEDERHOLT: Winnell says the earlier someone gets treated for MST, the less likely it is their life will unravel. That's why reporting is so important.

Ms. WINNELL: If the patient reports this, then we ask them, `Would you like to obtain counseling or further evaluation for this now?'

WIEDERHOLT: Winnell says the questions are helping provide better data about the problem. In 2004, San Francisco's VA screened approximately 9,000 patients.

Ms. WINNELL: Two percent of the males have screened positive and 31 percent of the females have screened positive. So, you know, that's a significant figure. The actual numbers are such that 194 men here have screened positive and 152 women.

WIEDERHOLT: That's something that's not often talked about. VA stats show more men are actually sexually harassed and assaulted in the military than women, not surprising given that roughly 85 percent of the armed forces is male. Winnell says men are even less likely to report MST than women.

Ms. WINNELL: It's been quite interesting, actually, how difficult it has been for them to come forward with this.

WIEDERHOLT: The DOD's new confidentiality law emphasizes treatment. Reporting will no longer trigger an automatic investigation and victims won't necessarily have the event on their permanent record. Brigadier General K.C. McClain, who heads the Joint Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response at the Pentagon, says increased reporting is vital to tackling the problem.

Brigadier General K.C. McCLAIN (Joint Task Force For Sexual Assault Prevention and Response): It would give us better insight into what is happening on our installations and, more importantly, it would give the care and support to the victims.

WIEDERHOLT: The Task Force on Sexual Assault will become a permanent office in October. It's something that didn't exist in the late '70s when Brigadier General McClain was launching her military career and when the San Francisco veteran says hers came to an early end. She says she often wonders what might have been if she had dealt with her assault sooner.

Unidentified Woman: I planned on re-enlisting. Me and my daughter, she was going to be the ultimate Army brat. We was going to travel and just have stories to tell. And that didn't happen.

WIEDERHOLT: For NPR News, I'm Kristin Wiederholt in San Francisco.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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