By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Defense Department on Thursday unveiled steps to combat sexual assaults in the armed forces by increasing protection for victims, beefing up oversight of investigations, and making responses to such crimes more consistent across the military.
"Sexual assault is a stain on the honor of our men and women who honorably serve our country, as well as a threat to the discipline and the cohesion of our force. It must be stamped out," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement.
Hagel said he would continue to meet weekly with senior Pentagon leaders to review the broad effort to eliminate a problem that has plagued the military for decades.
The Pentagon reported in May that there had been a 37 percent increase in cases of unwanted sexual contact in the military from 2011 to 2012, with 26,000 people reporting everything from groping to rape, up from 19,000 a year earlier.
Sixty people have been removed from jobs as military recruiters, drill instructors and victims counselors since the report. Hagel announced first steps in May.
"The initiatives announced today are substantial, but only a step along a path toward eliminating this crime from our military ranks," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
"The President expects this level of effort to be sustained not only in the coming weeks and months, but as far into the future as necessary," Carney said. "None of our men and women in uniform should ever have to experience the pain and degradation of sexual assault."
Senator Kirsten Gilliband, a New York Democrat, called the Pentagon's announcement a "positive step" and said more work was needed to rebuild trust in a system that resulted in just 302 prosecutions out of 26,000 reported sexual assault cases.
"We have to attack that because, frankly, we want increased, unrestricted reporting," said Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti, director of the Joint Staff. "And we can only get that if we (have) the trust of our victims."
Scaparrotti said the initiatives standardized some best practices already being used by the military, but suggested more could be done.
He acknowledged a strong correlation between sexual assaults and alcohol use, but said the military was not taking steps at this time to standardize measures being implemented at various bases that limited alcohol sales.
"At least in the meetings I've been in, we've not discussed it in the form of making it common across the services," Scaparrotti told reporters. "We've generally left it ... to the command at this point, but we could take that on."
The measures announced on Thursday include creation of a legal advocacy program in each military service that would provide legal representation throughout the judicial process for sexual assault victims, and a guarantee that pretrial investigative hearings of sexual assault-related charges were conducted by judge advocates general (JAG) officers.
They also give commanders options for reassigning or transferring accused sexual offenders to eliminate continued contact with victims, thereby addressing a major concern that had been raised by victims. And they require general officers to be notified about reported crimes.
The Department of Defense also agreed to allow victims to give input during the sentencing phase of a court martial.
An independent panel, as mandated by Congress in the fiscal 2013 defense spending law, will be created to review and assess the military's entire process for investigating and prosecuting crimes involving sexual assault under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Toni Reinhold)