STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Obama recently said sexual assault has no place in the U.S. military. The Pentagon has announced a number of new steps to deter assaults and make it easier to prosecute offenders. But, as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, many victims believe the first problem is a military culture that makes it tough for victims to report these crimes.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: For victims of sexual assault in the military, the nightmare starts with the attack. But many say things get much worse when they try to do something about it.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I reported it two different times to my squad leader. And he told me that there was nothing he could do about it because I didn't have any proof.
ABRAMSON: These stories are from a new film coming out this week. "The Invisible War" chronicles the victims say they encounter when they look for justice within the military.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Even with the rape kit and everything, and, of course my friend catching him raping me, they still don't believe me.
ABRAMSON: The film argues that a deeply ingrained culture of mostly male authority in the military makes justice hard to find. In fact, the Pentagon has acknowledged this. Air Force Major General Kay Hertog is the outgoing head of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. She says getting victims to report can be a huge challenge.
MAJOR GENERAL KAY HERTOG: We anticipate maybe about 14 or 15 percent of people who have been sexually assaulted come forward to report.
ABRAMSON: In April, the Pentagon changed a number of procedures so more crimes will be reported. For example, many fear if they file a complaint, they might have to work side by side with the perpetrator while the investigation is under way. So General Hertog says the Pentagon made a key change: Victims are now entitled to demand an immediate transfer.
HERTOG: So if they feel that their situation is so untenable after they've reported being sexually assaulted, they can actually go to their commander and ask for a transfer out of that organization or off that installation.
ABRAMSON: Another change: Many victims say they're intimidated about reporting, but then might change their minds years later. So the new policy says evidence from rape cases will also be kept for 50 years. That helps those who need some time before they feel ready to file a complaint. It also helps them apply for veterans benefits to deal with the consequences of an assault.
But the hardest thing to change may be the most important - the strong role of the military hierarchy. The Pentagon recognizes the role of rank and recently announced that no one below colonel or Navy captain can dismiss an allegation of assault. But this still requires that victims report an alleged crime up the chain of command. Kate Weber says she was raped when she was in the service in the 1990s and was urged by superiors to drop the issue.
KATE WEBER: I want them out of my chain of command. I don't want them to be my direct supervisor, I don't want them to know my supervisor, I don't want them to know my rapist. I don't want affiliation between that rapist and those people.
ABRAMSON: The Pentagon has resisted this idea. General Kay Hertog says commanding officers must take charge of this problem.
HERTOG: As a commander, you're responsible for maintaining your good order and discipline. So in order to do that, you've got to be able to impose discipline. So taking this out of the chain of command is not the answer. We own this problem. We must fix this problem.
ABRAMSON: The idea is that the issue must be solved within the military to maintain the trust that commanders rely on. But Kirby Dick, director of the film "The Invisible War," says sexual perpetrators abuse that concept of trust that's ingrained in boot camp.
KIRBY DICK: These are your brothers and your sisters. You're willing to take a bullet for them. And so this idea of trusting someone else is built up to such an extent that oftentimes it makes these people very vulnerable.
ABRAMSON: Vulnerable to the abuse of trust that they were taught to respect. So if the Pentagon wants more people to report sexual assault, victims will have to believe that leadership is watching my back.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.
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