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U.S. defense officials report slow progress in sex assault battle

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military's system for handling sexual assault cases is so inadequate that an Army private had to turn to the Internet to decide what to do after she was raped, the victim testified at an emotional Senate hearing on Wednesday.

"I had to Google what to do when it happened to me," Jessica Kenyon, a former Army private first class, testified at the hearing on links between military sexual assault, suicide and post-traumatic stress.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who chairs the personnel subcommittee, called the hearing as she tries to win support for a bill that would remove the power to decide whether to try sexual assault cases from the military chain of command and put it into the hands of an independent military prosecutor.

"No matter where you fall on that debate, we can all agree that we must fully understand the long-term psychological toll on the survivors of sexual trauma in the military, and the best practices for effective treatment," the New York Democrat said.

Defense officials said they were making slow progress. For example, two out of every 10 service members who experience unwanted sexual conduct now come forward, versus one in 10 before.

Gillibrand dismissed the suggestion that that improvement was noteworthy. "I would not pat yourself on the back for two out of 10," she said, interrupting testimony from Dr. Nathan Galbreath, an advisor to the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention office.

VOTES BLOCKED

The Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing took place two days after Republican Senator Jerry Moran blocked votes on Gillibrand's bill and another measure, sponsored by Senators Claire McCaskill and Kelly Ayotte, also seeking to address sex crimes among U.S. troops.

Kenyon's attacker admitted the assault, but remained on active duty, demoted two ranks. She described at the hearing how she was ostracized and retaliated against for reporting the attack.

Another veteran who testified, retired Marine Lance Corporal Jeremiah Arbogast, was drugged, rendered incapacitated and sexually assaulted while on active duty. Retired from the Marines due to post-traumatic stress disorder, he is now a paraplegic from a gunshot wound from when he tried to kill himself.

Although thousands of military men suffer sexual assaults, Arbogast said he did not receive the care he needed from the Department of Defense. "You felt like a dirty little secret that they just wanted to do away with," he said.

The Defense Department witnesses also said that more women are coming forward than male victims, a change from just three years ago. They said 77,000 women have been identified as sexual assault victims, versus more than 57,000 men.

"This isn't a male or a female crime. This is a crime that can be committed against anyone," said Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican.

Senators at the hearing said they expected some legislation would pass soon to address the crisis, including removing a commander's ability to lessen punishments in assault cases if the attacker has a strong service record.

But there were strong signs that Gillibrand's bill still faces stiff opposition.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, the top Republican on the personnel subcommittee, is staunchly opposed. "From my point of view, this is a problem that will never be solved if you tell the commander that 'this is no longer your problem,'" he said.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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