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Why Pentagon's progress against sexual assault is so slow

The military legal system is seen as often punishing victims of sexual assault instead of perpetrators. Pentagon efforts to make headway depend largely on improving prosecutions.

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These are behaviors that US military prosecutors are learning to focus on during trials. "Basically what we're doing is examining the crime, as opposed to the victims," Strand says.

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Understanding victims

Key to this is a new understanding of how victims of sexual assault often respond. In the past, when investigators would uncover inconsistencies in the victims' testimonies, they would immediately discredit them. "We thought inconsistencies equals a lie, which is really not true," Strand says.

"We'd ask questions of the victims like, 'What kind of socks was the perpetrator wearing? What time was it? Which hand did he use to touch you?' " These were questions, Strand adds, that in their traumatized state, victims were not always prepared to answer.

"Now, if I have a report without some inconsistent statements I tend to get a little concerned," he says.

At the same time, the US military is changing its mind-set. In the past, officers might have asked if a victim had failed to use the "buddy system" when walking back at night.

"The issue should not be 'Were you with your buddy?' ... The only person responsible for the assault is the perpetrator."

A wide-ranging sexual-assault scandal at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, uncovered earlier this year, points to the problem of sexual predators within the force and the challenges of prosecuting them.

Pentagon investigators say that more than three dozen female trainees may have been victimized. To date, six instructors at the basic-training course for the Air Force have been charged with offenses ranging from rape to adultery.

In the prosecutions, though, the Air Force has had some notable setbacks. Staff Sgt. Peter Vega-Maldonado struck a plea deal in June after he admitted to having sex with a female trainee. He received 90 days' confinement after agreeing to testify against his fellow trainers, for which he received immunity.

It was only then that he admitted to having sex with a total of 10 trainees, a source of grave embarrassment for Air Force officials.

In July, Staff Sgt. Luis Walker was sentenced to 20 years in prison after being convicted of raping a female recruit and sexually assaulting several others.

In investigating the topic of military sexual assault for his documentary, "The Invisible War," director Kirby Dick found repeated cases of victims afraid to report the crime for fear of what might happen to them – the potential destruction of their careers, the damage to their families.

When they did, he found that "it wasn't only the assault which was so devastating – it was the second-stage betrayal when the military didn't investigate the crime properly and was much more aggressive towards the victim than it was towards the perpetrator."

Throughout his work, Mr. Dick says, he heard a "standard refrain" from defense officials. "It was, 'The civilian world certainly has a problem with sexual assault, and the military is only a reflection of society – so don't blame us, blame society.' "

But the military is also in a unique position to address the crime. "It has more control over its population than the civilian world – it can educate and teach values of respect for women."

He points to the military's integration of African-Americans, and the role that played in decreasing racism in the country.

"I think the military deserves a fair amount of credit for that," Dick says. "I think the military could do the same thing with sexual assault. Right now it's a very severe problem in the military, but it has the opportunity to address this problem that will not only benefit the military and make it a stronger fighting force, but over time it can increase respect for women throughout society."

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