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July 22. 2013 6:35PM

Sen. Shaheen, officials, experts discuss sexual assault in military


SEN. SHAHEEN 

DURHAM — Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., was at the University of New Hampshire on Monday to participate in a roundtable discussion with law enforcement, military officials and UNH researchers about best practices for sexual assault prevention.

The hope is to take those best practices to the military to prevent sexual assault in the armed forces.

Shaheen helped introduce a number of provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act to address the issue, including a measure that will leverage the expertise of civilian best practices.

She was also successful in including a measure requiring more rigorous screening of military assault officers after multiple Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, or SAPR, officers were accused of sexual assault.

“We have a responsibility to act. The Department of Defense has had a zero-tolerance policy on sexual assault for over two decades. Yet we're still having this discussion instead of implementing reforms. If we continue to avoid the fundamental issues, 20 years from now we will find ourselves in the exact same place. We can't let that happen,” Shaheen said.

Shaheen said progress is being made but not enough.

“Despite the best efforts on the part of (military) leadership, there still remains in some places a culture that seems to tolerate sexual assault in the military,” she said.

Surprisingly, the number of men reporting sexual violence is higher than the number of women, although the percentages for women are higher because there are fewer of them in the military.“I think most of us would agree that we have the finest military in the world. The men and women who serve do so at great sacrifice to themselves and this issue has been a … stain that we need to eradicate,” Shaheen said.The defense authorization bill includes about 30 provisions that would address various aspects of the sexual assault issue, she said, and are a result of discussions with members of the armed forces and victims who have come forward in an attempt to address some of what does not seem to be working.

Among the key points Shaheen heard during the roundtable discussion on Monday was the importance of a comprehensive long-term approach to the issue.

She also learned of a research project conducted by UNH in collaboration with the Navy about the problem of sexual assault by Navy servicemen against children in their own household, an aspect of the sexual assault problem UNH professor David Finkelhor said does not receive a lot of attention but certainly exists.

The study found that when fathers were on long deployment and missed the child-rearing activities at home, they were at greater risk of sexually abusing their children later on. He talked of the need to manage deployments differently and to reinforce the importance of family bonds.He said he is not sure if the study was shared outside of the Navy, something Shaheen said she wanted to look into.

CSM Jason Speltz is a victim advocate with the New Hampshire Army National Guard and said there are major differences between active duty military installations and the Guard, which uses community resources to assist victims and families, whereas within active duty military, issues are handled by the military.

Former Portsmouth Police Chief Brad Russ said the response to military reports of sexual assault is not in line with what they see in law enforcement, and thinks in terms of training, law enforcement can help add value to that.He said he hopes the military will say they would like to have outside help with the problem.

During Monday's roundtable, Shaheen said 50 percent of sexual assault survivors surveyed said they did not report the assault against them because they did not believe anything would be done about it. Also, 47 percent said their assault went unreported because they feared retaliation.

Shaheen supports taking investigations of sexual assaults out of the military chain of command, an issue she said will remain controversial when the full Senate takes up the authorization bill this fall.

Shaheen said she is optimistic that provisions included in the defense authorization bill to address sexual violence will be enacted into law.

“Then the challenge is to implement them in a way that is positive and helps to make a difference,” she said.

Also on Monday, Congresswoman Annie Kuster, D-N.H., announced that the House Veterans' Affairs Committee held a hearing on the care and treatment available to survivors of military sexual trauma.

She said the hearing demonstrated the “terrible and painful reality of military sexual assault.”“Unfortunately, like the four courageous veterans who testified today about their traumatizing and horrific experiences, both during and after active duty, many military sexual assault survivors do not have access to quality, coordinated mental health care and their symptoms are often overlooked and ignored by both the DoD and the VA,” Kuster said.

Last month, Kuster helped secure passage of bipartisan legislation to enhance whistleblower protections for service members who report instances of sexual assault in the military.

gmacalaster@newstote.com


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