Veterans Affairs leaders will play a key role in the Defense Department’s sweeping review of sexual misconduct cases and prevention policies in an effort to ensure both federal agencies are providing the best care possible for everyone, officials announced this week.
In a social media post Monday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had invited VA officials to participate in the 90-day independent review commission.
The full slate of commission members has not yet been released, but is expected to include current and former military leaders, advocates and outside experts on the issue of sexual assault.
“Preventing sexual harassment and sexual assault is a priority for VA,” McDonough said in a statement. “This effort will advance our joint efforts to prevent this behavior and create a welcoming environment.”
Pentagon officials have objected to the idea for years, but the new Senate Armed Services Committee chairman says the proposal is back on the table.
The 90-day commission was ordered by President Joe Biden earlier this year, and Austin has already ordered a separate internal review on the effectiveness of sexual assault and harassment prevention programs among the services.
Last year, the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office reported that that sexual assault reports increased 3 percent from fiscal 2018 to 2019, with more than 6,200 cases. But officials estimated that less than 40 percent of all assaults are formally reported to commanders for investigation.
Last week, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby announced that Lynn Rosenthal, a noted gender violence expert, has been tapped to head up the new commission. Members are expected to interact with current and former service members as part of their work, through both installation visits and a new online resource where individuals can share their ideas for changes.
VA officials did not give additional details of their department’s role in the work, but said they have been in contact with both the Defense Department and White House about participating in the effort in recent weeks.
According to department research, about one in four female veterans and one in 100 male veterans have reported some form of military sexual trauma during their time in service.
Veterans said they were thrust into public discussions of military sexual trauma topics without warning or proper support.
The veterans department has also had its share of public problems on the issue of sexual misconduct in recent years. In December, officials were forced to apologize after thousands of sexual assault victims were invited without warning into a group conference call on available VA benefits, a conversation that included graphic discussions about abuse and personal trauma.
Also late last year, dozens of members of Congress and veterans service organizations called for the resignation or firing of former VA Secretary Robert Wilkie over his handling of a sexual assault report by a veteran who works as a congressional staffer. Critics said his behavior and officials’ lack of work on sexual misconduct prevention caused a lack of confidence in the entire department.
In his first message to the VA workforce after being sworn in as secretary, McDonough vowed to establish “a workplace free of harassment and discrimination” within the department.
“I will not accept discrimination, harassment, or assault at any level or at any facility within VA,” he said. “We will provide a safe, inclusive environment for veterans and VA employees. Simultaneously, we will redouble our efforts to care for veterans who are survivors of military sexual trauma, ensuring they can all count on VA’s support.”