NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. (NNS) -- Military women are an integral part of the armed forces and efforts are underway to combat and eliminate sexual assault in the ranks, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here today at the 2013 Joint Women's Leadership Symposium.
Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr. noted that through a decade of war, military women have demonstrated courage, skill and patriotism in combat -- which predates the recent exclusion lifted on women for direct ground combat positions.
"More than 150 women in uniform have perished serving our nation in Iraq and Afghanistan," Winnefeld said. "Today, a great many female service members have faced the reality of combat, and proven a willingness to fight and, yes, die in the defense of our nation."
The admiral said he and the joint chiefs are committed to opening every professional door possible to qualified people.
"The fundamental question has shifted from 'Why women?' to 'Why not women?'" Winnefeld said.
The vice chairman also explained that one challenge in particular has proven most daunting.
"What gives me the greatest concern is the No. 1 problem in my people portfolio -- the threat we face from within our own ranks," Winnefeld said regarding burgeoning incidents of sexual assault.
Just as the ongoing stress and fear of lethal "insider attacks" in Afghanistan afflict many troops, so does the anguish of unwanted sexual contact and sexual assault that erodes cohesion, he stressed.
"We've worked on this, but not hard enough," Winnefeld said. "We will not allow this to go on -- the American people expect more of us ... all of us, anyone who shares the privilege of wearing the cloth of our nation."
Winnefeld said plans to combat and eliminate sexual assault include a greater investment in specially trained sexual assault investigators and a push for more psychological, medical and legal assistance for victims.
"We're looking closely at implementing force-wide the Air Force's Special Victims Counsel Pilot Program," he said. "If it's working, I think we should use it."
The vice chairman also said officials will examine the scientific roots of behavioral factors associated with potential predators, which will assist sexual assault prevention efforts.
Collaborative efforts with lawmakers and military leaders will capitalize on good prevention ideas and bring greater accountability to commanders, Winnefeld added.
"We have a sense of urgency for winning the battle against this insider threat, but results are what matters," the admiral said.
Ultimately, Winnefeld said, trust is the "coin of the realm" for a military force built on moral and physical courage, teamwork and mission success.
Winnefeld said that the women with whom he has worked feel the task at hand is now about getting the right people with the right qualifications into the right jobs.
"For them, these barriers have been little more than speed bumps that have slowed progress, but have never been able to truly stop determined people from advancing," he said. "Like breaking through racial barriers, we know we will have this right when we don't even find ourselves talking about it anymore."
Get more information and resources to combat sexual assault at www.sapr.navy.mil. Sexual assault affects Navy readiness, and the Navy is committed to preventing sexual assault. Join the Navy's conversation about sexual assault on social media and help raise awareness by using #NavySAPR.