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Panetta: Could be 19,000 military sex assaults each year

Senior U.S. defense officials, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, announce new efforts to combat sexual assault in the military.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday that the Pentagon is preparing new initiatives to try to curb sexual assaults in the military -- a problem he believes could be six times greater than reported.

Panetta said 3,191 sex assault cases were reported in the military last year, but because so few victims come forward, he believes the real number is closer to 19,000 assaults. In 2010, 3,158 cases were reported.

"It is an affront to the basic American values we defend and it is a stain on the good honor of the great majority of our troops and our families," said Panetta during a press conference at the Pentagon.

“These women and these men who are willing to fight and die to protect and serve our country – they deserve better protection. Their families and dependents also sacrifice and serve. And so for this reason, we must spare no effort to protect them against this heinous crime. … One sexual assault is one too many.”

Panetta said new initiatives include extending victim services to military spouses as well as Pentagon civilians and contractors working abroad. Also, more money will go toward training investigators and lawyers to go after and prosecute perpetrators.

Under the new measures, service members who file sexual abuse charges can immediately transfer to a new unit or base to avoid harassment or contact with the accused attacker.

The proposals require congressional approval.

'Deeply regret'
Panetta spoke two days before the premiere of a new documentary about sexual assault in the U.S. military, titled "The Invisible War." The film is being shown at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

Saying he wanted to speak directly to the victims of sexual assault in the Defense Department, Panetta said somberly: "I deeply regret that such crimes occur in the U.S. military ... I'm committed to providing you the support and resources you need and to taking whatever steps are necessary to keep what happened to you from happening to others."

"The Invisible War" premieres Friday at the Sundance Film Festival. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports.

Announcement of those two changes accompanied the Pentagon's annual report last month showing assault cases rose at the nation's three major military academies in the latest academic year from one year earlier.

The Defense Department's "Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies" for academic year 2010-2011 found there were 65 reports of sexual assaults involving cadets and midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy. That was up from 41 reported assaults in the prior academic year. Officials said they could not conclusively identify the reasons for the increase but that it could be because the department has worked to encourage more victims to report assaults.

Beyond the academy report every December, the Pentagon also releases an annual report each March on sexual assaults throughout the services.

This post includes reporting from The Associated Press.

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