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Civilian rape counselors could aid military.

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. Berkowitz said. Victims who receive prompt, confidential services have a faster recovery. Better reporting leads to more prosecutions, and more prosecutions result in fewer sexual assaults.

The military should not abandon its current counseling services, he said, but currently there is no consistency to the delivery of services and no guarantee of confidentiality. In contrast, confidential civilian rape counseling services are available in over 1,100 communities and are accessible through the 24/7 National Sexual Assault Hotline operated by RAINN.

Hotline counselor training could be expanded to include specific knowledge about the military and the unique needs of service members, Mr. Berkowitz said. The National Sexual Assault Online Hotline, a real-time counseling service being developed with the U.S. Department of Justice, could also be expanded to serve military personnel, he said.

The military also needs to adopt a number of emergency protocols, including making rape evidence kits available at the unit level, making victims advocates available at the unit level, and increasing availability of emergency contraception and testing supplies for sexually transmitted infections, HIV, and pregnancy, testified Christine Hansen, executive director of the Miles Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Newtown, Conn., that provides services to victims of interpersonal violence associated with the U.S. military.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), called for better training of military officers to deal with sexual assaults, development of a clear protocol for women to follow after an attack that protects privacy and ensures safety, and appropriate medical treatment and counseling for women regardless of their deployment location.

"Even with these changes, some victims will never consent to report their attack," Mr. Berkowitz said. "But even in the worst-case scenario, we will have made an improvement over the current system."

But even if current services are improved, the first step toward curbing sexual assault in the military is punishing the perpetrators, U.S. Army Capt. Jennifer Machmer testified at the hearing. "Let them feel the pain the victims feel."

Capt. Machmer said that she was the victim of two sexual assaults by other service members, one of which was continual abuse that took place over the course of about 4 months. She is still waiting for her alleged assailants to be punished, she said.

Capt. Machmer, who is currently being processed for a medical discharge, said victims should not be pushed out of the military but, instead, should be encouraged to stay and educate other soldiers about their experiences as survivors.


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Title Annotation:Community Psychiatry
Author:Schneider, Mary Ellen
Publication:Clinical Psychiatry News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2004
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