The Pentagon has ordered an urgent inquiry into reports that more than 100 American women deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been raped or sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers, it emerged yesterday.
There have been 112 cases of sexual assault on women soldiers in units under central command, which oversees operations in the Middle East and central Asia, during the past 18 months. Meanwhile more than 20 women at an air force training base in Texas have told a local crisis centre they were assaulted in 2002.
If only half of the cases are confirmed it will be the worst rape scandal the US military has faced in nearly a decade.
The reports provoked outrage in the Senate yesterday.
"What does it say about us as a people, as the nation, as the foremost military in the world, when our women soldiers sometimes have more to fear from their fellow soldiers than from the enemy?" asked Susan Collins, a Republican senator.
"Why is there less public outrage when servicewomen suffer at the hands of their own fellow servicemen than from the enemy?"
Senators said it was particularly shocking that many of the victims had been military police officers and helicopter pilots who had been assaulted in remote parts of the Afghan and Iraqi battlefields.
The extent of the problem emerged has over the past few months with a series of reports in the Denver Post newspaper about servicewomen who had sought help from civilian counselling centres after returning from the front, where they had not been offered help by officers. Most said they feared retaliation, damage to their careers or being portrayed as disloyal.
In response military officials said the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had launched an inquiry this month into the apparent epidemic of assaults, and the response of the military.
"The principal focus of that review is how we care for the victim," David Chu, the head of the Pentagon personnel department, told the Senate. "How do we care for the individual who has been harmed?"
Senator Ben Nelson questioned the military's response to the reports. "These are all appropriate responses to get an accurate assessment of the scope of the problem," he said.
"But I'm concerned, because I don't feel a sense of outrage by military leadership, not at this point, at least."
General George Casey, the vice-chief of staff of the army, admitted the victims had not been properly treated. "I will tell you frankly here that our preliminary review of this area in victim assistance leads me to believe that we have some more work to do in this area," Gen Casey said.
"These reports raise many questions about how the services currently respond to incidents involving allegations of rape and sexual assault, and just as importantly, how the victims of such attacks are treated."
According to the Miles Foundation, a charity offering help to victims of abuse in the military, three-quarters of women veterans who were raped said they had not reported the assault to a senior officer.
"One-third didn't know how to; and one-fifth believed that rape was to be expected in the military," the foundation says on its website.
The Pentagon released a report this week on the results of a 2002 survey suggesting the number of servicewomen who said they had been sexually assaulted had fallen to 3% from 6% in 1995. But the survey did not cover the build-up to the Iraq war, and failed to impress the Senate.
"Why in the world did it take two years to take a survey?" John Warner, the Republican head of the armed services committee, asked.
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