Pentagon's latest target: sexual assault

Sexual assault has for too long been the military's dirty little secret, in that only a fraction of incidents get reported, let alone prosecuted.

We commend the Pentagon's crackdown on such violence but also on a culture that has demeaned women while promoting a "don't rock the boat" approach.

An article in The Day on Friday by Jennifer McDermott describes efforts at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton to reverse attitudes that authorities believe have contributed to a dramatic rise in such crime.

A Pentagon survey estimates that 26,000 members of the armed forces were sexually assaulted last year, a 37 percent increase from the previous year, but only 3,374 incidents were reported to authorities. Equally troubling: Only 176 cases were presented to commanders throughout the Navy and court-martial charges were brought against 99 people. The previous year charges were brought in 67 of 121 Navy cases.

Victims must feel they won't be persecuted or ignored, or they will continue to allow crimes to go unreported.

As part of a new "zero tolerance" attitude, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus ordered inspections of every Navy workplace last month. At the submarine base that prompted the removal of several photos, including one in a barracks lounge of a fully clothed Marilyn Monroe.

By targeting what some would see as innocuous pinups, officials risk creating a backlash against new enforcement measures, but we agree with the Pentagon's directive to eliminate anything that could create "a degrading, hostile or offensive work environment."

The base commander, Capt. Carl A. Lahti, noted, "There are photos of World War II barracks with pinup girls. That's not acceptable in our workplace anymore. We've just come beyond that as a society and we need to understand that."

Cmdr. Michael A. Pennington, theexecutive officer of the submarine base, agreed.

"We realized we were wrong. We changed our mindset."

This shift becomes increasingly important as more women are preparing to take on new responsibilities at the Groton base and throughout the military, including serving on submarines and in combat.

The Pentagon crackdown comes at a time when reform pressure is building from Washington.

Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-New York, has introduced legislation that would allow independent military prosecutors, rather than commanders, decide which sexual crimes to try, and that commanders would not be allowed to overturn verdicts for serious crimes.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who outlines his position in an opinion piece on this page, mostly supports this plan but says the military command must be involved in the decision-making. He also has introduced legislation to give military crime victims the same rights as civilian crime victims, including protection from the accused.

The measures likely will be considered later this month when Congress acts on the defense budget.

Whichever course of action Congress takes, it's clear attitudes have changed and must continue to evolve so women - and men - in the military can serve in a professional work environment.

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