Forum targets abuse in military

Victims, advocates say Congress must act to curb assault


WASHINGTON -- Congress must act to curb sexual harassment and assault, and domestic violence within the ranks of the U.S. military, victims and women's advocates said yesterday during a forum in Capitol Hill.

Too often, they said, women and men who report harassment or violence are ignored, and their abusers allowed to walk away with little or no impact on their military careers.

"You are the only ones who can make these changes," said Caitlin Stopper, who broke down in tears as she described her experience at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, where she said she was sexually assaulted by a fellow cadet early in her freshman year. When she finally confided in a civilian professor, she said she was subjected to "absolute hell" by her superiors, who implied that the assault was her fault.

Stopper, 20, said that despite the Coast Guard Academy's reputation as the most "female-friendly" of the service academies, women there are subjected to taunting, inappropriate touching and "a thick, pervasive attitude of male supremacy on campus."

Yesterday's briefing came at a time of increased scrutiny of sexual assault in the military, especially at the nation's service academies.

In late February, Lamar S. Owens Jr., a 22-year-old senior at the U.S. Naval Academy, was charged with raping a classmate. This week, the attorney for the former Navy quarterback decided not to continue with a pretrial hearing, which means the case will go to an investigating officer who will recommend how it should go forward.

A Pentagon task force sharply criticized the academy in a report last summer, saying hostile attitudes toward women "continue to hinder the establishment of a safe and professional environment in which to prepare future military officers."

An internal academy report showed that the number of sexual assault allegations lodged by midshipmen has jumped over the past four years. According to the school's figures, of the 45 sexual assaults reported, including 17 in 2004-2005, two ended with a court-martial and conviction.

Academy officials and victims' advocates said the increase could be a result of reforms that encouraged women to come forward and report assaults.

According to a report released last month, there were 2,374 sexual assaults reported last year involving members of the military - 674 more than 2004.

Republican Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut attended part of yesterday's briefing and vowed to get more involved.

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, a New York Democrat, plans to introduce legislation this month that would tighten military rules dealing with sexual assault and domestic violence, to bring them more in line with civilian laws.

Stopper and others at the forum had plenty of ideas for lawmakers. Laura L. Miller, a military sociologist at the Rand Corp. and a member of the Pentagon task force that produced last summer's report about the service academies, suggested closing the preliminary hearing, known as Article 32 in military terms, to the public.

While Miller acknowledged that keeping the proceedings secret would also prevent the news media from spotlighting problems, she said open hearings often feature damaging disclosures that enable the accuser and the accused to be publicly exposed.

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