Getting serious about sexual assault

    The Army wants to keep computerized records of sexual assaults by and against service members so it can track and ultimately stop them. That’s the good news. It’s about time the military got serious about stopping sexual assault. This move is part of an overall effort by the Department of Defense to thwart what seems to be a skin-crawling rise in sexual misconduct and assault.

    But members of Congress and women’s groups say the Army’s plan of attack is misguided. The Army wants the records it keeps to include a variety of otherwise unnecessary information that needlessly exposes alleged victims to retaliation.

    The information on file would include names of women (yes, they are mainly women) claiming to have been assaulted by fellow servicemen, their Social Security numbers, birthdays, demographic information, military data, DNA-processing results and medical-treatment reports, and other private information having nothing to do with the alleged assault.

    Women’s-rights groups say much of what the Army wants to compile and keep on record is not really necessary and is not collected by other federal agencies (such as the FBI) when they collect data on reports of sexual assaults.

    What’s the problem? Information could be leaked to those accused of sexual assault. This could subject alleged victims to reprisals or prompt them to stop reporting sex crimes altogether. One can just imagine what harm a superior officer could do to someone accusing him of sexual assault. Harming the alleged victim’s military career is one thing. Deliberately assigning that person to a danger-ridden post would be another.

    Of course the accused also should be protected from retaliation until and unless prosecuted and convicted. But one member of Congress opposing the Army’s proposed records system, Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif., says there’s no plan to keep or disseminate the same amount of information on perpetrators, alleged or convicted.

    Solis posits that if the Army wanted to be fair, it would keep records of servicemen repeatedly accused or convicted of sexual assault. That’s not part of the Army plan.

    Sexual assault in the military is no joke. In fact, the rates are rather shocking, given the progress that servicewomen have reportedly made in integrating the ranks. The Department of Defense reports 1,700 female soldiers reported sexual or physical assaults in 2004, up 68 percent from 2003 and up 79 percent from 2002.

    It extends beyond the services, to the service academies as well. The Associated Press reports that the schools are struggling to clear out the detritus of several sex-assault scandals with scant progress. The Air Force Academy in Colorado is still recovering from complaints that dozens of female cadets were assaulted and then punished when they reported the crimes to superiors. And the Veterans Affairs Department recently reported that six in 10 women who served in the National Guard and Reserves say they were sexually harassed or assaulted.

    Failing to take care of this dirty little secret is finally starting to take its toll on recruitment. The Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., reports, “The number of women applying to the U.S. Military Academy (West Point) is at a four-year low, a drop that comes amid new evidence that sexual assaults at West Point outpace those reported at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.”

    This is not a time when any of the services can fail to attract talented women. Women now comprise 15 percent of the 2.6 million members of the active Guard and Reserve forces. Much as many conservatives would like to keep women out of battle zones like Iraq, the Pentagon and the White House have now recognized that there simply aren’t enough American men who wish to serve in the all-volunteer military to cover combat-related jobs women now fill.

    Does the Army need to be fair to men wrongly accused of sexual assault? You bet. False accusations do happen, if rarely. And no information on accuser or accused should be accessible to anyone who could use it against a serviceman or a servicewoman who has not been proven guilty.

    But surely there’s a way to collect the data while not forcing women who report assaults to fear for their careers or for their lives.

    (Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes a column for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)