By Emily Cadei and Megan Scully, CQ Staff

Over the summer, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James F. Amos hosted a dinner with a handful of lawmakers to discuss a hidden epidemic of violence in the military: 19,000 servicemembers are estimated to be victims of rape or sexual assault each year.

The high-level gathering was a signal of how seriously the military brass is now taking the problem of sexual assaults. But the dinner guests were quickly reminded of just how taboo the subject remains for much of the armed forces. Someone mentioned the low reporting rates — only 2,723 military victims came forward to formally disclose assaults in 2011. Amos’ wife turned to a high-ranking female officer at the table and asked what she would do if she were assaulted. Would she report the crime.

“With the commandant present and [three] members of Congress, she honestly answered no,” recalls Ohio Republican Michael R. Turner, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Women “perceive that it can affect someone’s career in the military negatively if they report they’re the victim of the crime,” Turner says. “And that’s just wrong.”

Turner’s outrage is widely shared in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. That consensus breaks down, however, over how best to legislate and implement a sweeping cultural change in an institution as large and complex as the U.S. military.

The debate rests on the question of whether the armed forces — where loyalty and fraternity are deeply ingrained values and resistance to outside interference is the norm — can remake itself and, most important, police itself on matters of sexual violence. Both sides acknowledge that it isn’t yet clear whether the military is at a true tipping point such that a change in culture is systematically spreading down through the services’ ranks.

In 1991, the Tailhook scandal exposed widespread sexual harassment at an annual Navy convention in Las Vegas, providing the public’s first glimpse of a deeply problematic culture of sexual violence and offender impunity in a military still adjusting to the integration of women into its ranks. Similar incidents later roiled the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and the Air Force Academy in Colorado.

The most recent incident, which occurred this year, involved a group of a dozen or more basic-training instructors accused of sexually assaulting female trainees at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

In the past, each scandal prompted outrage and demands for change. But after the furor died down, only limited strides were made. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that roughly a fifth of the female veterans it screens each year report having experienced sexual trauma while in the military.

Now, advocates say, attitudes have begun to change, with a sustained push coming from Capitol Hill and the Pentagon.

“What we’ve seen in the last five years or so has been an interest and an increase in trying to find real solutions to the problem, real systematic solutions to the problem,” says Greg Jacob, a former Marine and the policy director for SWAN, the Service Women’s Action Network, an organization that advocates on behalf of women veterans.

Observers attribute the gradual momentum and the growing awareness to the increase in the percentage of women in the military — roughly 14 percent today — and to the dismantling of barriers that have kept women from taking on a wider range of roles.

Also, women have been elected to Congress in growing numbers over the past two decades, forming something of a critical mass on such key panels as House Armed Services. Three of the Democratic women on that panel who have led the charge on military sexual assault — Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts, Jackie Speier of California and Chellie Pingree of Maine — began their first full terms in 2009. California Democrats Susan A. Davis, elected in 2000, and Loretta Sanchez, elected in 1996, have also been active on the issue. In the Senate, Republican Susan Collins of Maine, elected in 1996, and Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, appointed in 2009, have pushed changes from their posts on the Armed Services Committee.

Some male lawmakers who are strong Pentagon boosters, including Turner, Rep. Jon Runyan of New Jersey and other Republicans, have been drawn to the issue out of disgust with the treatment of servicemembers. Many got involved after they personally heard from victims in their home districts and states.

Up to now, Congress has aimed to overhaul the military from within, particularly its system of justice, which is entirely separate from the civilian legal system and which until recently had been decades behind with regard to handling rape and sexual assault.

So far, changes in the law enacted with bipartisan majorities have preserved the responsibility for prosecutions within the military’s chain of command. Defenders of this approach, including Turner and Tsongas, say that altering the culture requires buy-in from the Pentagon and that they want to see how well the military responds before supporting more radical solutions.

A vocal group of Democrats, however, maintains that this approach has been unduly deferential to the military. “The Department of Defense has so far been unable to appropriately address this problem,” Speier said on the House floor in June. The Lackland scandal, in which one former instructor has already been convicted of rape and sexually assaulting 10 women, “is proof of that,” she said.

Tensions spilled over in December during a testy exchange on the House floor. Speier complained that the Pentagon’s message to assault victims has been, in essence, “shut up, take an aspirin, go to bed, sleep it off.”

That didn’t sit well with Armed Services Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, a California Republican. “I refuse to have the innuendo or the charge that the military is corrupt top to bottom,” he objected, “which is what you just basically inferred.”

“I did not say the military was corrupt,” Speier retorted before McKeon cut her off.

“You did charge them with some very serious issues and besmirched the character of the military,” McKeon said. He noted that the House was trying to address the problem with a raft of provisions in the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill.

“I’m not going to say that it shouldn’t have been fixed before. It should have. But we have this in the bill,” McKeon said. “This will take care of it.”

Not everyone is so certain.

Unexpected Alliances

The fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill and the House-passed fiscal 2013 version include the most far-reaching changes yet to the military’s system for reporting and prosecuting sexual assault claims and to its treatment of victims. These measures are the product of an unlikely bipartisan coalition of lawmakers for whom the staggering number of assaults is somewhat more personal.

Turner first took an interest in the wake of the murder, in December 2007, of Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, a native of his Dayton, Ohio, district. Lauterbach had reported to her commanding officers that she had been raped by a fellow Marine and was eight months pregnant. Shortly thereafter, the burned remains of Lauterbach and her unborn child were found in the back yard of her accused rapist.

The response from the Marines spurred Lauterbach’s mother and a local attorney and former Judge Advocate General’s Corps officer “to take this system on,” Turner recalls. It also motivated him to become involved.

“The day that the accused fled the country when her body was discovered, the spokesperson for the Marines said, ‘Well, today, we lost two good Marines,’” Turner says. “Well, no, they didn’t. They lost one Marine, [who] was murdered, and another one was a murderer.”

The cases of Lauterbach and other victims have clearly shaped lawmaker responses. The list of provisions they have pushed into law reads in many places like a direct reaction to past crimes. One new requirement, enacted last year, requires service secretaries to allow victims of sexual assault to request reassignment and to appeal if their requests are denied. Lauterbach wasn’t allowed to make such an appeal. She and many other servicemembers who were sexually assaulted had to continue serving alongside their assailants.

“She really had given them the sense that she thought she was in danger,” Turner recounts. “She had come and asked for a transfer that had been denied.”

The provisions of the fiscal 2012 defense authorization law build on laws enacted in the past decade that require changes as basic as the development of a departmentwide policy to respond to and prevent sexual assault and the compilation of an annual report on assaults involving servicemembers.

In previous years, Congress ordered the Pentagon to create a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) to oversee efforts across the department; to build a database to monitor incidents of sexual assault; and to amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the military’s legal system, with regard to defining rape and to specifying which factors should be considered when determining a defendant’s guilt or innocence.

Slow Progress

Lawmakers and advocates view the issue of prosecution as key to changing attitudes, and not just among top military officials. It’s crucial, they say, to change behaviors and attitudes among the more than 2.2 million active and reserve troops across the four services.

But so far, the statistics on prosecution rates have been less than encouraging.

In 2011, the Defense Department investigated 1,518 members of the military for sexual assault; only 240 cases made it to trial by April 2012, resulting in 191 convictions, according to the Pentagon’s most recent statistics. Contrast that with the estimated 19,000 annual military victims of sexual violence — more than half of whom are believed to have been assaulted by a fellow servicemember — and it is evident that only a tiny fraction of assailants are held accountable for their crimes.

The fiscal 2012 defense authorization ensures that victims have access to military lawyers and requires each brigade or equivalent unit to have victims’ advocates charged with coordinating care and overseeing cases. And the House fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill, passed in May, would require each service secretary to establish “special victims units” to aid in investigating and prosecuting sexual assault allegations. The House bill also would move the decision of whether to prosecute a sexual assault claim up to the level of colonel and out of the hands of a company’s commanding officer, where conflict of interests can arise, particularly in the significant number of cases when the commander is the attacker.

After an April 16 roundtable with Congress’ new Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta announced that he wouldn’t wait for the legislation to shift responsibility to the colonel level, instead making it effective immediately, and he commanded each service to create special victims units.

Those moves have encouraged Tsongas, Turner and other lawmakers, who say they want to see whether that will result in an increase in reporting and prosecution rates before they advocate stricter measures.

They should be able to do so when the military’s database on sexual assault incidents, mandated in the fiscal 2009 defense authorization law, goes online this fall. It is expected to provide far more detailed data about occurrences and about how they are handled.

“My view is to give them some time,” Tsongas says. But, she says, if the military doesn’t show significant progress in protecting service members, prosecuting offenders and changing the military’s culture, more drastic measures may be needed.

Actions ‘Yet to Be Convincing’

Speier isn’t nearly so patient. “The words have been much improved, but the actions have yet to be convincing,” she says of the military’s response to sexual violence.

Speier recently traveled to Lackland for briefings on the Air Force’s response to the sex scandal there and says the sheer number of assaults requires the military to handle these crimes differently than it does others.

“It’s not like there are 19,000 murders a year in the military,” she says. The military and Congress have “only been nibbling around the edges, thinking that a new prevention program will do the trick.”

Speier is perhaps the issue’s highest-profile advocate, regularly addressing the subject on the House floor and in congressional hearings. And she is the most vocal critic of the military’s response, which has won her regular appearances on cable news shows — and has raised the hackles of some of her colleagues. Sanchez, also a member of the House Armed Services panel, says Speier’s dust-up with McKeon on the House floor last December “really burned up a lot of the members on the committee.”

Speier introduced legislation last November that would move reporting, oversight, investigation and victim care beyond the military’s chain of command. Jurisdiction would instead be placed in a newly created independent body composed mostly of civilians. That approach is supported by some high-profile backers, including the makers of “The Invisible War,” a 2012 documentary that traces the experiences of women and men who were sexually assaulted while in the military. The advocacy group Protect Our Defenders also supports Speier’s more aggressive approach, dismissing the military’s recent steps as “half-measures.”

Speier’s STOP Act — it stands for Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention — has 133 cosponsors, but only one is a Republican, so the measure is unlikely to move forward in the GOP-controlled House. Critics, including those in the Pentagon, say the measure is at odds with military protocol.

“We require our commanders to maintain discipline within their units across everything they do; it’s how they keep their uniform, it’s how they behave,” says Erin C. Conaton, the undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness. “The criminal element of it, the misbehavior part of it, is essential to the commander’s ability to continue to maintain good order and discipline in his or her unit.”

Maj. Gen. Gary S. Patton, chief of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, says he wants commanders to be more engaged with the issue, not less. The colonel-level review of sexual assault claims will ensure that the crimes receive high-level attention and appropriate legal assessment and still keep them within the chain of command. Colonels, he says, have a military lawyer working directly for them and deal with legal matters on a regular basis.

Jacob, of SWAN, says if elevating the authority for prosecuting sexual assault claims to the colonel level “solves the problem, then that’s the solution.” But if that proves ineffective, Jacob adds, the military should look at giving prosecuting authority to military lawyers, a more conservative option than Speier’s.

“From our perspective, we think the military can solve this problem,” Jacob says. He cautions that, regardless of which steps are taken, “there’s really no way to change an institution like the military without getting the military involved in the solution.”

Long-Awaited Shift

All evidence shows that top military brass, after years of downplaying the problem, now recognize the need for change. In a May 3 letter to all Marines, Commandant Amos couldn’t have been more direct about his views on sexual assault in the ranks. “I want there to be no ambiguity in the mind of any Marine,” he wrote. “Sexual assault is a crime.”

“The awakening within the Marine Corps on this issue starts immediately with the receipt of this White Letter,” Amos said. He announced in the letter that he would take the unusual step of calling most of his 85 generals to Washington in July for two days of training, to help them understand the gravity of the matter and to discuss the way forward.

The Navy, meanwhile, has put the onus on its commanders, requiring them to report all sexual assaults in their units to the first admiral in the chain of command and to detail any cultural problems that may have contributed to the incidents. “We’re going to hold commanders accountable for appropriate command climates, for situations that they set up and control and how they are doing on educating their sailors,” says Adm. Mark Ferguson, the Navy’s No. 2 officer.

Panetta has been similarly determined. Just last month, he imposed higher standards for sexual assault prevention-and-response training for prospective commanders and senior enlisted personnel. And he ordered the military services to create standard learning objectives and to develop refresher training programs for leaders.

These moves followed the policy changes announced in April and underscored Panetta’s zero-tolerance policy on sexual violence within the military’s ranks. “Sexual assault has no place in the military, and we have made it a top priority to combat this crime,” Panetta told reporters April 16.

Compare that with the rhetoric from the military upper ranks just a few years ago.

In March 2008, when Turner was pushing the Marine Corps to explain why it hadn’t protected Lauterbach, Lt. Gen. R.S. Kramlich, then director of the Marine Corps staff, replied in a letter that Lauterbach “never alleged any violence or threat of violence.” The response infuriated Turner, who continues to open committee hearings on the subject by reading from that letter.

“Can you tell me what a non-violent rape is?” Turner asks, incredulous. (Some Republicans recently sparked controversy with their own comments on rape, including House Armed Services Seapower subcommittee Chairman Todd Akin, a Missouri Republican, who referred to “legitimate rape” during his campaign for Senate.)

Many lawmakers and advocacy groups give today’s military leaders high marks for collaborating with those outside the military. Jacob recounts how Air Force Gen. Edward Rice Jr., commander of the Air Education and Training Command, contacted his organization in August and requested a meeting to discuss the Lackland scandal and ideas on preventing any recurrence. The meeting lasted 75 minutes.

“I don’t think four or five years ago you would have had a four-star general reaching out to an organization like ours,” Jacob says.

That doesn’t mean that advocates, both on and off Capitol Hill, haven’t had differences with the military. Turner is openly critical of the Air Force, which he says hasn’t kept up with the other services when it comes to sexual assault prevention. Turner and Tsongas have taken issue with the Air Force’s interpretation of the language in last year’s defense authorization law that guarantees sexual assault victims access to a lawyer.

In an Aug. 10 letter, the two lawmakers reprimanded Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley for his decision to apply the mandate only in civilian matters and said that the military must create an environment that punishes criminals and encourages victims to come forward. “Providing access to legal counsel is a critical step in that process and should not be further delayed,” they wrote.

Changing the Culture

The broad cultural change that Turner and Tsongas seek hasn’t yet occurred. But the military has adapted to significant societal shifts over the years, such as racial integration in the 1940s, drug abuse in the 1990s and the repeal in 2011 of the controversial “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law on gays in the armed forces.

When the ban on openly gay service was lifted last year, it was almost a non-event for individual servicemembers. But that, many observers say, is because the culture had changed long before the law did. Younger troops in particular were already accepting of gay men and women serving openly.

For sexual assault, however, the opposite is true. Any culture change must target the military’s youngest personnel, who are the most likely to be involved in these cases. Two-thirds of the victims are younger than 25, according to the Pentagon’s most recent statistics. In that same report, the Army estimated that most offenders within its ranks are junior enlisted personnel and also are younger than 25.

Training is an important part of the strategy, military leaders and lawmakers agree. Congress has pushed the services to improve and expand their training on sexual assault prevention; an earlier incarnation, from about a decade ago, exemplified backward thinking, say critics. “We’re looking basically at posters where they talk about a ‘buddy system’ and ‘Ask her when she’s sober,’” one House aide says of the military’s much-derided outreach campaign, orchestrated by SAPRO’s first director. The focus was as much on the behavior of the victim as the perpetrator. “That’s not a prevention strategy; the assumption is that rape is going to happen,” the aide says.

Close observers point to major strides in training since then, but the results vary greatly depending on the service, the unit and the command. The Navy, for example, is testing a program incorporated at boot camp — so that it reaches the youngest members of the service — focused on bystander prevention and also is policing underage drinking. That has resulted in a 62 percent reduction in sexual assault reports at the Naval Station Great Lakes, in Illinois — the Navy’s largest training post — according to an information memo.

Still, observers complain that the training programs tend to focus on teaching people how to avoid being raped.

There needs to be a message, Jacob says, that “rape is a crime, and if you rape someone you’re going to go to jail and you’re going to get thrown out of the military.” That’s the signal lawmakers hope to send. It remains to be seen, though, whether steps already taken will be enough, or whether lawmakers will turn to Speier’s tougher provisions.

Turner says Speier’s proposed bill should spur the armed forces to embrace the changes he has helped turn into law. “The military,” he says, “has motivation to make this work because they know the alternative would be the beginning of a very negative precedent.”

Frank Oliveri contributed to this story.

FOR FURTHER READING: House fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill (HR 4310), CQ Weekly, p. 1040; fiscal 2012 defense authorization (PL 112-81), 2011 Almanac, p. 5-3; fiscal 2009 defense authorization (PL 110-417), 2008 Almanac, p. 6-3. Speier’s STOP bill is HR 3435; Pingree’s sexual assault PTSD benefits bill is HR 930, and Tester’s companion bill is S 1391.