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Training push fails to halt military sexual assault crisis

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) and Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey hold a joint news conference at the Pentagon in W
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) and Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey hold a joint news conference at the Pentagon in W

By Tabassum Zakaria and David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Under pressure to fight sexual assault, the U.S. armed forces in recent years rolled out education programs about proper sexual conduct through methods like role playing and video games.

The increase in education has nevertheless failed to prevent what the nation's top general called last week "a crisis" after the Pentagon reported a 37 percent jump in the estimated number of sexual assault cases in 2012.

Moreover, the military suffered deep embarrassment when personnel who worked on preventing sexual assaults were themselves accused of sex crimes this month.

On Friday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gave top brass a week to come up with a plan for discussing the problem with all troops and ensuring proper training and credentials for those who deal with new recruits and sexual assault victims.

Education campaigns teach service members basics like how to make sure the other party is a willing participant in intimate contact, or how to step in as a bystander if an alcohol-fueled situation looks like it could lead to inappropriate conduct.

The Army is in the fifth year of its "I Am Strong" sexual assault prevention campaign, under which all new soldiers are drilled on a set of 10 "sex rules."

All members of the Air Force are required each year to have one hour of face-to-face sexual assault prevention training from a sexual assault response coordinator.

While all the military services have programs on avoiding sexual assault, critics say training may never be enough to do away with the problem. What is needed, says former Marine Captain Anu Bhagwati, is a shake up in the military judicial system.

"The military cannot train its way out of this problem," said Bhagwati, who is now executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, which campaigns for women's issues in the armed forces.

She urges the military to take prosecution of sexual assault cases away from the chain of command, making it easier for victims to seek justice, an idea echoed in a Senate bill last week.

"I think even today the training is not meaningful, certainly not in a significant way that causes behavior change," said Bhagwati, who helped implement sexual assault prevention training before she left the military in 2004.

General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said it will take time and diligence to see progress from sexual assault prevention training.

"The experts tell me we have to be careful ... because sometimes programs that are successful in this area will take a long time to show results," he told reporters at the Pentagon.

"This is not going to be a rapid fix," Welsh said. "It's got to be a constant attention to detail."

'BEHEMOTH ORGANIZATIONS'

While more than half the victims of sexual assault in the military are men, women in the services are still more likely to be accosted sexually.

There are nearly 205,000 women in the active duty military, nearly 15 percent of the total, and women will be integrated in frontline combat roles by 2016.

General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week the military is losing the confidence of women members because of the sexual assault "crisis."

Changing the culture in an armed forces of 1.4 million people is an enormous challenge.

"These are behemoth organizations. They are enormous. They have attempted to deal with the very difficult problem of sexual assault," said Anne Munch, a former prosecutor who has worked as a consultant on sexual assault issues with the military for more than a decade.

"You have to attack the problem in a lot of different ways, and there's no one answer and there's no silver bullet."

The Army has a live, interactive program called "Sex Signals" in which soldiers watch actors role play dating scenarios on stage and discuss whether the participants correctly understand how their actions are viewed.

The Army also makes use of a video game called "Team-Bound" in which players witness a potential sexual harassment incident as it unfolds.

Soldiers and officers receive sexual assault prevention training at all levels. New recruits are drilled on a set of 10 rules, from "sexual assault is a crime" and "no always means no" to "stop sexual hazing, bullying and assault" and "be a leader, not a passive bystander."

To some, the training can come off as half-hearted.

The Protect Our Defenders victims' advocacy group said an Air Force officer told them that a course he took consisted of being given two brochures to read and being told to sign a paper saying he had come to the class.

The treatment of victims often leaves a lot to be desired, despite efforts to help those who have experienced sexual assault, said the Air Force's Welsh.

One story that Welsh says hit him "like a ton of bricks" was that of a service member who had been raped in another country. When she went to a base hospital for testing, a technician came out to the waiting room and said in a loud voice, "OK, now who was the sexual assault victim?"

The Air Force started a program in January in which victims are assigned an attorney to guide them through the process and keep them from having to go over their testimony repeatedly. Welsh said early statistics on the victims' counsel program show the percentage of people willing to proceed with prosecutions is up substantially.

Among those who initially report their cases only on condition it not be pursued as a criminal matter, only about 13 percent shift and agree to prosecute. But in a group of 300 people with special victims' counsels, 55 percent of those who did not want to pursue the case criminally have shifted and agreed to prosecute, Welsh said.

(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Alistair Bell, Mary Milliken and Jackie Frank)

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