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Pentagon orders new steps to prevent sexual assault in the ranks

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has ordered all military branches to review policies and procedures in an effort to curb sexual assaults in basic training and to improve how officers and senior enlisted leaders are educated and respond to reported incidents.

The goal of the latest initiatives, Pentagon press secretary George Little said, is more uniform and comprehensive training across all armed forces.

"It is clear that the department must continue to do more to prevent sexual assault, especially in initial military training environments," Little said. "Our newest service members are the most vulnerable and most likely to experience a sexual assault."

Panetta directives, which come less than six months after the Pentagon revised how sexual assaults are reported, includes an assessment of how new recruits are trained, who trains them and oversight of instructors. In addition, the department intends to improve training for prospective commanders on sexual assault prevention and response.

Related: Air Force relieves training commander at Lackland over sex scandal

Last year, 3,192 sexual assault were reported across all branches of the military, though the Defense Department says the true number of incidents was closer to 19,000 because most sexual assaults go unreported.

The announcement comes after a number of reports on sexual assaults within the military.

Lackland Air Force Base trainers are under investigation for sexual assaults against 31 recruits. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski speaks with one victim from another case who said she was drugged and raped by a recruiter in Maine, but she felt powerless to fight back.

At Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, at least a dozen instructors were accused of sexually assaulting at least 31 recruits and 35 instructors have been removed from their posts during the investigation. The Lackland cases were considered in the latest initiatives, Little said.

“The Invisible War,” a documentary film released this summer, unveiled more chilling stories from service members who describe a pattern of assault, intimidation and retaliation, and a failure by the military to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes. The film is highly critical of the military, and in particular the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, which oversees Defense Department policy on sexual assaults.

The review of training will also assess the potential benefits of increasing the number of female instructors.

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"That review will assess initial training in several areas," Little said, "including the selection, training and oversight of instructors and leaders who directly supervise trainees and officer candidates; the ratio of instructors to students; and the ratio of leaders in the chain of command to instructors." It is to be completed by February 2012.

In April, Panetta ordered that sexual complaints be handled by higher ranked officers -- a colonel or officer of equal rank -- to improve accountability. In the past, a service member’s local unit commander would evaluate charges and decide whether to pursue disciplinary action. 

Service members who report a sexual assault also were given the option to quickly transfer from their unit or installation to get away from an alleged assailant. 

Greg Jacob, policy director for the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), an advocacy group for women in the military, told NBC News that the latest Pentagon moves are a step in the right direction, but fall short of having unbiased lawyers determine whether sexual assault cases should be prosecuted.

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"We're really excited to see the secretary stepping out with leadership, saying 'OK I want to get a snapshot to see what's going in these schools'," Jacob said of the training review. "But as long as commanders are making those decisions you're never going to have completely unbiased dispositions coming out that command -- unless they kick it over to a criminal prosecutor."

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