By Leigh Munsil
After months of blistering criticism from Congress over sexual assault in the military, the Pentagon wants lawmakers to see it's getting tough -- now.
Army Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, who oversaw the implementation of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal, has just taken the helm of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, charged with the most serious push yet to crack down on one of the military's most corrosive problems.
"What I want to say upfront is we recognize that we have a problem with sexual assault in the military," Patton told POLITICO. "There is no silver bullet in terms of solving this issue; it really comes down to a combination of programs."
Patton, who takes the reins from retiring Air Force Maj. Gen. Mary Kay Hertog, said that in order to make real progress, military leaders need to confront systemic and cultural failures.
"I don't see this as necessarily a female issue. This is a leadership issue," he said. "It's about enforcing standards of behavior. Every sexual assault is an affront to our military values. It's against the values we defend and it's against the cohesion that all of our units demand."
In 2011, there were 2,723 reports of sexual assault by victims in the military, but officials say they think the crime is drastically under-reported. Another Department of Defense estimate put the total at about 19,000 per year.
From the Hill's perspective, Patton's emphasis is a step in the right direction.
"We see in the upper leadership the beginning of some real accountability both in prevention, protection of victims and prosecution," Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) told POLITICO. "Congress is really looking very closely to see whether or not their efforts can lead to real turnaround."
Turner co-chairs the House's military sexual assault prevention caucus with Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), which has been active in the investigation into the sexual abuse of more than 40 women by as many as 19 instructors at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.
Patton said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Air Force leaders will be briefing members of Congress in upcoming weeks on what the investigation has unearthed, and Turner said there will be congressional hearings into the scandal.
Tsongas cited looking into the Air Force scandal as a top priority on the Hill for when Congress returns.
"The events at Lackland really do show that there is still much work to be done, that the military has not made acceptable progress and there is significant and immediate action that they need to take," she told POLITICO. "The Air Force really has an opportunity now to prove with actions rather than words that they're serious about addressing sexual assault."
Likewise, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) told POLITICO that "We need a drumbeat of leadership coming across the highest military chain of command, so the secretary's leadership and a new SAPRO commander are important steps in that direction. But more needs to be done," she said, "to ensure that there is no tolerance for sexual assault, and there is appropriate prevention, punishment and services for victims."
DoD has a congressional mandate to submit an annual report in April on sexual assault and every December on sex assault at the military service academies, Patton said.
Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) told POLITICO that with the growing number of women in the ranks, the brass owes the troops and the Hill its increased diligence about sexual assault.
"Women now represent over 15 percent of our armed forces, and they deserve a basic guarantee of safety," she said in a statement. "While I am pleased that the services have admitted that there is a problem and that DoD has established more stringent procedures for investigating and handling allegations of sexual assault, there is still more to be done. It is critical that we figure out how to break the cycle of sexual assault in the military. Any instance of assault is one too many."
To that end, "assessment" is one of SAPRO's five focus areas when combating sexual assault, Patton said, along with prevention, investigation, accountability and victim assistance.
DoD's strategy includes standardizing sexual assault prevention training across all branches and encouraging "bystander intervention" -- or enlisting troops to step in if they worry that fellow service members are getting out of line. Patton also said the Pentagon is adding special victims' investigator and prosecutor training, "building victim confidence" that reports will be taken seriously, allowing victims to request to be reassigned from their units and getting national credentials for victims' advocates.
In his more than 33 years of military service, Patton said he saw several instances of sexual assault and harassment, most memorably while in South Korea and Iraq.
"I found that it was important to address sexual harassment, sexist behavior and all those types of related gender-focused, degrading acts and language and so forth," Patton said. "As a commander it's important to not allow an environment or a climate that is permissive or accepts or condones or tolerates sexual harassment and sexual assault. There is a correlation in the units that may be tolerant of harassment, of sexist behavior and that sort of thing -- those units correlate to higher incidence rates for sexual assault."
Patton, Turner and Tsongas all agreed that the DoD is at a turning point in its battle against sexual assault.
"We're really at a critical juncture. This whole issue has become so visible. There are fewer taboos associated with talking about it," Tsongas said. "I'll remain concerned about the issue until we have a dramatically reduced incidence of assault."
Turner added: "It's impossible to quantify the point at which DoD needs to arrive, but we know that they're not there."