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By Lauren Kirkwood, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Under pressure to act on the issue of sexual assault in the military, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited a rape crisis organization Monday to stress the Pentagon’s commitment to ensuring that victims of sexual violence are taken seriously in the armed forces.

During Hagel’s visit to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network in Washington, he discussed services for sexual assault victims, including its Safe Helpline, an anonymous hotline contracted by the Department of Defense and launched in 2011 in partnership with the group.

Hagel said military leaders had a responsibility to make the issue of sexual assault a priority.

“Like everything in life, everyone in positions of leadership are accountable,” he said. “I think this is an insidious issue that is part of our society and culture. This is not a problem indigenous to the military. Our people in the military come from society; they reflect society.”

Legislation to change the way sexual crimes are handled in the military has recently moved forward in Congress. A military sexual assault bill authored by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., passed the Senate in March and is headed to the House of Representatives. The bill would give accusers a formal say in whether their cases are prosecuted in civilian or military court and would eliminate a “good soldier” defense that takes into account the service record of the defendant, among other changes.

During a tour of the network’s office, Hagel praised staff members’ work. He said that one of the most important first steps to eliminate military sexual assault was developing trust and confidence in the system, a task that began with providing victims the resources they needed, whether that meant immediately after an assault or years later.

“This job is not for everybody, so it seems to me it’d be a pretty select group of individuals that could do it effectively,” Hagel said. “I know they hear a lot of rough stories. That’s not an easy thing to carry around.”

The Safe Helpline, which operates 24/7, allows survivors of military sexual assault to communicate with network representatives via telephone or secure online chat. More than 22,000 people have used the line to access crisis and sexual-assault support, and more than 300,000 have received information from the Safe Helpline website, including referrals for resources on and off military bases, according to the group.

The rape, abuse and incest network also operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline, a 24-hour service that connects callers to local crisis centers that partner with the organization, and it runs sexual assault prevention programs across the country.

“The heart of what we do is victims’ services,” said Scott Berkowitz, the network’s president and founder. “Victims have very specific needs and desires. Overwhelmingly, they want anonymity and confidentiality.”

AFP Photo/Chip Somodevilla

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