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Defense chief seeks to stop sexual assault in the military

WASHINGTON – Nearly nineteen thousand—18,900 to be exact—U.S. servicemen and women were sexually assaulted last year. “That’s 18,900 too many,” according to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.

“Even though sexual assault is a disgrace in any form and happens too often across the country—including on college campuses, it’s a particular challenge and a particular disgrace to our institution, the military,” Carter told an audience of ROTC students from D.C.-area colleges at Georgetown University Wednesday.

“We have serious work to do and I need you to say, enough. Enough to dirty jokes, to excessive drinking, to hazing, to sexual advances, and to any suggestion that coercion is appropriate,” Carter said.

Carter said technology is playing a role in how victims and the people who help them are treated by their peers. He urged the students to be just as active in combating this kind of treatment online as they would be in real life.

“I trust most of you would intervene if you saw somebody being bullied around campus, but too many people let that stuff slide online,” Carter said. “We can’t allow someone who’s doing the right thing whether it’s reporting an assault or standing up to stop one to be belittled on Facebook, ignored in chow hall, passed over for promotion or mocked in officer’s club. That’s counter to the ethos you signed up for, and it’s just plain wrong.”

Tackling the problem of sexual assault in the military has become a top priority for Carter and for Congress. Last month Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., reintroduced the Ruth Moore Act, which aims to provide veterans benefits to survivors of sexual assault.

The bill is named for Ruth Moore, a Maine resident who was raped twice while serving in the Navy. Moore’s attacker was never punished.

After being discharged, Moore fought for more than 20 years to receive her benefits. The bill aims to ease the burden of proof standards, which now say veterans must show that their trauma is connected their time in the military. The proposed law seeks to make a veteran’s own testimony of events qualify as substantial proof for benefits.

“We’re not giving up until every victim of sexual assault in the military gets the acknowledgement and recognition of their post assault disabilities, fair treatment in the claims process, and the benefits they deserve as veterans who served their country with honor,” Moore said in a statement on March 27.

Pingree and Tester originally proposed the bill in 2013. It passed unanimously in the House but never came up for a vote in the Senate.

Other laws have also aimed to help survivors of sexual assault in the military. Most notable is the watershed 2013 Military Justice Improvement Act, which overhauled the investigation and prosecution of sexual assaults in the military.

Carter said 100 congressionally mandated provisions and 50 Secretary of Defense directives have also contributed to changing the prevalence of sexual assault in the military.  His speech coincided with National Sexual Assault Awareness Month.