Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel / PAUL J. RICHARDS, AFP/Getty Images
WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said his visit Monday to the military's sexual assault hotline sends this message: No single issue has a higher priority at the Pentagon.
Solving the crisis, he said, will require sustained attention and changes "wide and deep" within the military. Hagel noted that he meets weekly for an hour with top civilian and military leaders of the services to discuss the problem and how to combat it.
"It is important for people to know that the secretary of Defense is very focused on stopping sexual assault in the military," Hagel said.
Hagel spent more than an hour with the staff of the Safe Helpline, the Pentagon's confidential portal for troops who have been sexually assaulted. Its counselors chat by phone or Web with victims, referring them to military or civilian authorities to make complaints and to medical and mental health professionals.
The Pentagon pays the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network $2.76 million per year to run the service. Since 2011, its counselors have advised more than 22,000 servicemembers and their families. By design, the website and outreach brochures downplay their connection to the Pentagon. The intent is to encourage victims to seek help and allay their concern that reporting an assault will be signaled to colleagues and superiors within the ranks.
Hagel and the Pentagon have been under fire from Capitol Hill and victims' advocates over the past year to address the military's sexual assault crisis. Last May, the Pentagon's estimates showed a 35% spike from 2010 to 2012 in instances of "unwanted sexual contact," which ranges from groping to rape. Congress forced the military to change the way it handles cases, denying commanders the authority to toss out convictions and shielding victims from probing questions at initial hearings.
Erasing the stigma on victims of sexual assault and winning their trust to lodge complaints and seek help are key issues for the Pentagon, Hagel said.
Monday, hotline staffers briefed Hagel on their round-the-clock operations. Increasingly, troops seek help online. Victims tend to be younger, Jennifer Marsh, a network official, told Hagel, and they're more comfortable sharing their stories online than by phone.
Hagel quizzed several staffers on their backgrounds and encouraged them to care for themselves as well as victims. One chatted quietly by phone with a caller, while another handled a Web chat.
"This is not a job for everybody," he said. "They hear some pretty rough stories."
Hagel lingered for several moments before a board holding Post-it notes with brief quotes from victims assisted by counselors. One such message read, "All you did was save my life tonight."
That's proof, he told the counselors, that they make a difference.
"Powerful stuff," he said.
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