By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 28, 2012 – Military leaders at all levels must take responsibility to stop sexual assault, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said.
In an interview with NBC’s Natalie Morales that aired yesterday, the secretary said, “Any sexual assault has no place in the military.”
He continued, “If we don’t take steps to deal with it -- if we don’t exercise better leadership to confront it -- it’ll get worse. And that’s why it’s really important that we take the responsibility to ensure that it doesn’t have a place in the military. I have men and women in the military who put their lives on the line … to protect this country. Surely we owe it to them to be able to protect them.”
Leaders know “that we have to do a better job at dealing with this,” the secretary said. “Look, we’ve got 200,000 women who are in the military. We’re trying to open up another 14,000 positions for women, to be able to fully participate.”
Those women want to have a career in the military, and have earned the right, he said.
“They’re putting their lives on the line,” he said. “We’ve lost 150 during the wars … 1,000 have been wounded. We owe them the respect, we owe them the honor, of being able to protect them.”
The military stands for and defends the values of good order and discipline, he said, which means, “we’ve got to make sure that women are protected from any kind of assault.”
The services have a clear superior-subordinate structure, Panetta noted.
“We can’t go to war, we can’t fight, we can’t protect this country without a strong chain of command,” he said. “But that chain of command means there have to be officers, there have to be [noncommissioned officers], there have got to be leaders who say, ‘Wait a minute.’”
Leaders must exercise good order and discipline, and speak out against and act to stop certain behaviors, he said.
Panetta noted the department has taken steps to strengthen sexual assault prevention. For example, he said, department policy now allows a sexual assault victim to rapidly transfer from an assigned unit where the assault happened.
“Secondly, we’ve made clear that you can’t just have a unit commander handle this kind of situation; it’s got to be moved up to a senior commander … who will exercise greater responsibility in bringing that [sexual assault perpetrator] to justice,” he said.
Thirdly, he said, “We’ve got to improve the investigations … have special victims units. And we’re putting that in place.”
Training is also critical, the secretary said. “We’ve got to do better training for both the recruits and the commanders,” he added. “So that they’re aware that this is a real problem.”
What’s happening in the military is also a societal problem, Panetta said. “We see alcohol playing a role in these areas. We see … the abuse, the disrespect that’s involved -- and the fact is, rape is rape. And it has to be dealt with in a serious manner, and sometimes that’s downplayed in the society.”
All of those factors lead to “a situation where you can have this kind of power game,” he said. “Where people are put into vulnerable positions, and it all plays out. It plays out in society, and it plays out in the military.”
He said the only way to prevent that abuse of power is to have strong leaders at every level who stand against it and say, “This has to stop.”
Punishing offenders is also important, Panetta said.
“It's an outrage that we aren't prosecuting our people involved here,” Panetta responded when Morales noted that 240 cases were prosecuted out of the more than 3,000 reported last year.
The secretary acknowledged assault prosecutions are “tough cases.”
“But the fact is we can do this,” he said. “We need to improve the investigations and … we need to ensure that we have [military] prosecutors who are willing to bring these cases to court and make sure that these people don't get away.”
The secretary said he opposes turning military sexual assault cases over to civilian courts. “We have a military justice system. We have to enforce good order and good standards,” he said. “If somebody hits somebody, or somebody robs somebody, or somebody commits an act on a battlefield that’s wrong, we’ve got to prosecute those people. We have a responsibility to do that. The same thing is true of sexual assault.”
The “vast majority” of service members operate on a deep level of mutual trust, Panetta noted.
“Sexual assault can’t be a part of that,” he added. “We’re the ones who have to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
The secretary said from the top reaches of the Defense Department down to the platoon and squad level, his message is that leaders must take responsibility.
“Frankly, part of this is also moving women into command positions,” he added.
Panetta said he’s confident the department can make progress against sexual assault.
“This is an issue I, as secretary of defense, am committed to making sure we confront,” he said.