Sexual assaults by service members against colleagues have dogged the military recently because of increased reports of such attacks in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan and a blistering Pentagon task force report earlier this year that said the Defense Department was not doing enough to help victims and punish offenders.

Facing widespread concerns about the U.S. military's handling of sexual assault cases, the Defense Department has turned to an experienced Air Force commander and educator to develop a global plan for combating the crime.

Brig. Gen. K.C. McClain, commander of the new Joint Task Force for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, is setting out to change attitudes and educate hundreds of thousands of people about the sensitive and often controversial topic.

She envisions the most successful approach as one that capitalizes on the military's "team" concept to train soldiers and officers about what is and is not acceptable behavior. "The military is a team. Successful teams are based on people who rely on each other, who can trust each other," McClain said in a recent interview at the Pentagon. "An assault on one is an assault on the team."

And who would want to weaken the team by attacking a teammate? Who would want to steal something from someone you have to rely on in combat? It is this logic that she thinks can break through.

"Our culture will allow us to make great progress," she said. "It's a difficult subject to discuss because it's personal, because it's sexual, and we as a society don't deal well with that." McClain said the military could be a great model for dealing with sexual assault if the right policies are set up and followed.

According to the Pentagon, there were 901 alleged cases of assault throughout the Defense Department in 2002 and 1,012 in 2003, numbers that high-ranking Pentagon officials believe represent a tiny fraction of the actual cases because victims often are reluctant to report the cases. The task force also found that the military is failing to protect female soldiers from the attacks and is not adequately punishing offenders.

McClain said she is focused on bringing together what she called a "fragmented effort" to deal with sexual assault across the military services, one that has major gaps and is in need of a single point of authority to provide direction. McClain is now that single point of authority.

"We have the opportunity to have a far-reaching, long-lasting impact," McClain said. "There are a million people in the Department of Defense, and we can put together a program that will hopefully make these people more safe and more secure."

McClain is leading an eight-person team that first came together two weeks ago in an Arlington office building, a team that aims to improve prevention, ensure support for victims and ensure offender accountability.

McClain's team will first work to provide a military-wide definition of sexual assault, one that she hopes will be clear, in plain English and apply to current military law. She said there is confusion in the field over what constitutes a sexual assault.

"You have to draw your boundaries very clearly," she said.

A recent conference of 150 people from all military services recommended that the department look at five areas, the first of which was coming up with a workable definition of sexual assault. They also recommended working on how to improve reporting, how to increase transparency in response efforts while also protecting service members' privacy rights, how to improve the response capability and how to treat foreign nationals who are involved in sexual assault cases. An Oct. 6 summit with top defense leaders gave a go-ahead to McClain's groups to work on those recommendations.

McClain opened her Arlington office on Oct. 12 and has begun organizing, doing strategic planning and getting ready to develop what is slated to be the one policy that will lay the groundwork for dealing with sexual assault across the military.

She is at the center of tackling what she acknowledges is a monumental problem, one that is pervasive in society and is reflected in the military.

"Society is grappling with it just as we are grappling with it," she said, expressing dismay that because sexual assault is so underreported it is affecting far more people than the statistics show.

McClain said her focus will be on education and training, areas she is experienced in. She most recently was deputy director of operations for technical training at the Headquarters Air Education and Training Command at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas. She has three previous commands, leading the 314th Mission Support Group at Little Rock Air Force Base; the 17th Training Wing at Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas; and the Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver.

At the Air Force education and training command, she looked at sexual assault programs at 13 installations and found that although pockets were doing well, there was no centralized approach. Because there was little overarching guidance, "people were reinventing the wheel . . . the individual commands were left to themselves to come up with policy."

A major part of the educational effort will be to encourage people to come forward when they have been attacked and to break down barriers to reporting. McClain said that sexual assault investigations can often cause a stigma to victims, further isolating them and causing increasing psychological damage.

McClain said her efforts could cause more cases to be reported and investigated, but she thinks the military is prepared to handle the influx of cases.

"If you can prevent it, you don't have to worry about responding," McClain said. "That's our goal, to prevent it from happening. . . . The hardest part is getting them to understand and change some attitudes. It is an educational effort just as it is in society."

Brig. Gen. K.C. McClain said she will use the "team" concept in training Defense Department employees to understand what constitutes sexual assault.