A Scary Number: 3,000 Military Sexual Assaults

Here's a scary number: last year nearly 3,000 incidents of sexual assault were reported throughout the U.S. Armed Forces. Scarier yet, the Pentagon estimates that only 13 percent of sexual crimes were actually reported, so the real number of assaults is probably significantly higher. Although both male and female service members report incidents of sexual assault, among female veterans nearly a third say they were victims of rape or assault while they were serving - this is twice the rate of the civilian population.

We should be embarrassed. The parents of our military men and women send their child into the military knowing that they will face dangerous enemies and combat situations. What they cannot and should not tolerate, however, is their child being in an unsafe environment in their own military community. Our military men and women deserve better so they can focus on their mission.

While the Pentagon has made substantial progress in addressing this issue in recent years, much more needs to be done to address this grave problem.

When Leon Panetta came before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearing, I asked him to pledge to be vigilant in the fight against sexual assault in the military. He has his work cut out for him. We need to aggressively attack this problem with the full force of our abilities.

This issue is near and dear to my heart. In my days as a prosecutor, I saw too many cases of sexual assault, more than anyone should ever see. But at least in the civilian courts, victims have a better chance at justice through a standardized, legal process. According to some reports, in the military only 8 percent of sexual assaults that are investigated end in prosecution, compared with 40 percent in civilian courts.

Worse, all too often in the military, victims are unwilling to report the crime because they worry nothing will be done, or fear punishment for coming forward or worry that doing so could impact their career. That is not acceptable, and it has to change.

Unlike some places in the world, we as a nation have recognized that sexual crimes are anathema to society and even more so to the good order and discipline of the military. We continue to have the most professional military in the world, and I am convinced that our men and women in uniform are capable of not only tackling this problem but eradicating sexual assault from the ranks.

We have to make certain that victims feel safe when they report an assault and know their confidentiality will be protected. We must ensure victims are provided with mental health services and quality health care, whether during active duty or later as they transition back into civilian life.

A good first step would be for the Senate to pass the Support for Survivors Act, a bill that Senators Klobuchar, Collins, Murkowski and I introduced. It provides victims of sexual assault with important information they need to seek justice and ensures that all documentation, such as medical records, connected to a case of sexual assault is stored uniformly and sufficiently by the Department of Defense.

Mr. Panetta agreed that we have to do better to protect our men and women in uniform from becoming victims of sexual assault and provide them with the support and resources they need to report and seek justice for these crimes.

We must protect the men and women who have sacrificed so much to serve our country. Hopefully, Mr. Panetta, assuming his confirmation, will partner with me in this fight. We owe it to our heroes in uniform.