Just one week after the Pentagon announced it would expand integration of women in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, a new report has found the military isn't doing enough to care for women suffering from one of the worst possible wounds: sexual assault.
A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report published Tuesday said the Department of Defense has failed to establish "guidance for the treatment of injuries stemming from sexual assault." As a result, various military branches have developed their own protocol for handling sexual assault cases, and their rules sometimes conflict: At some locations, GAO agents discovered the command's medical policy either didn't give medical personnel directions on how to keep sexual assault cases confidential, or set rules interfering with their ability to do so.
Without the assurance their names won't be leaked, "sexual assault victims who want to keep their case confidential may be reluctant to seek medical care," the report warned.
Furthermore, first responders in the military haven't all been adequately trained to deal with assault situations. GAO agents found that Sexual Assault Response Coordinators, Victim Advocates, and health care personnel offered conflicting instructions about where servicewomen should go for an exam immediately following an assault. This conflicting advice is a problem because it could cause delays in treatment—and the quality of forensic evidence from a sexual assault diminishes significantly after 72 hours.
The GAO recommended the Department of Defense establish clear guidelines for handling assault cases, and ensure first responders take annual refresher training courses.
Military officials last week repealed a 1994 rule barring women from serving in positions of direct combat. Although military branches have until 2016 to decide whether to keep some jobs closed to women (for reasons related to physical strength and fitness), the new policy potentially opens up 237,000 combat positions to women. Many of the positions are in Army and Marine infantry units.
Besides placing more women in the path of bullets, the new integration policy could place them at greater risk of sexual assault, both from enemy combatants and from male U.S. military comrades. The Pentagon estimates 19,000 sexual assaults occurred among military members in 2011, with only one-sixth of the victims ever reporting the crime. In January, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the Pentagon plans to expand its services to assault victims, allowing them, for instance, to immediately transfer to a new base after filing a charge.
In a counterintuitive argument that seems doubtful, Joints Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said last week that greater gender integration in the military would help reduce instances of sexual abuse, by making women equal with their male comrades.
A group of instructors at the Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas, are currently under investigation for harassing or raping more than 40 women.