Nearly half of U.S. military women deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan say they’ve suffered sexual harassment, and almost a quarter say they’ve been sexually assaulted, a Department of Veterans Affairs study finds.
The numbers are far higher than the number of officially reported sexual crimes. According to the Pentagon, there were just 115 reported assaults last year among the 20,000 women serving in Afghanistan.
The study highlights the fact that some service members experience trauma beyond combat when they go to war, said Amy Street, a lead researcher, clinical psychologist, and a deputy director at one of VA's National Centers for post-traumatic stress disorders.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who has pushed for more effective ways to combat the issue, told USA Today that women are left with no "safe haven" in war zones.
"It comes down to the culture," Speier said. "(It) hasn't changed, no matter what the generals or the secretaries of defense say about zero tolerance. They have not scrubbed the sexism . . . out of the military."
The VA researchers sent out 1,100 anonymous surveys to women who have been deployed to the two Middle Eastern countries. Of those responding, 48.6 percent reported sexual harassment, while 22.8 percent reported assaults. Almost all the offenders were fellow service members, and in 47 percent of the cases the offender held a higher rank.
In the military as a whole, only 4.4 percent of women reported "unwanted sexual contact."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has advocated for harsher consequences for military members who have committed sexual crimes, setting forth new policies last April.
"The most important thing we can do is prosecute the offenders, deal with those that have broken the law and committed this crime," Panetta during a news briefing last spring. "And if we can do that then we can begin to deal with this issue — not only prosecute those that are involved, but more importantly send a signal that this is not a problem that we are going to ignore in the United States military."
Most notably, Panetta called for all sexual assault complaints to be handled by more senior officers like colonels or Navy captains, rather than unit commanders. The move is expected to lead to more serious prosecutions.
Last week, the Pentagon released its annual report on sexual harassment and violence at its military academies. Sexual assaults reported by students at the academies jumped 23 percent in 2012, the third straight year of increases, the Huffington Post
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