Major Gen. Margaret Woodward, heads the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention Program Major Gen. Margaret Woodward, heads the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention Program

As Congress debates whether to remove sexual assault cases from the chain of command to an independent group, top officers from all five branches said Wednesday the military is trying to prosecute more assailants, prevent retaliation against victims and offer them better counseling.

The Pentagon estimates there were 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact last year alone, from groping to rape. And while most attention has focused on servicemen assaulting servicewomen, the majority of cases involved male-on-male assaults.

In what may have been the only news flash from this forum, Adm. James Winnefeld Jr., vice chair of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, said that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will soon announce several initiatives meant to crack down on “this insider threat” to all service members, in order to produce “a culture of total intolerance.”

Hagel will mandate the involvement of a general staff or senior flag officer “on any kind of a sexual assault that occurs,” Winnefeld said in a teaser at Washington’s Naval Heritage Center. The panel discussion, part of The Year of Military Women, drew about 200 attendees, ranging from U.S. Naval Academy students to retired generals and civilian counselors.

The Hagel proposal is not meant as another layer of bureaucracy, Winnefeld added in an on-the-fly interview as he was leaving. “It is over-watching,” which translates to, “Something happened in this unit and I will monitor it.”

During prepared remarks, Winnefeld disagreed with the “story line” that commanders are unable and unwilling to prosecute sexual assault cases. “In the last two years, Army commands exercised jurisdiction that civil authorities declined to prosecute,” many of which resulted in confinement and discharges for perpetrators, he said.

Hagel and several key senators oppose removing assault cases from the chain of command, but it is unclear whether his new initiatives will satisfy other lawmakers – including 44 senators – who are strongly pushing for it on the grounds that problems of retaliation and double-victimization have only worsened over the years as the military has sought to police its own.  President Obama has taken no position on the issue.

The panel’s only woman, Major Gen. Margaret Woodward, who recently took over the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office at Air Force headquarters in Washington, said she has learned much about dealing with long-term effects of sexual assault from a female victim who works in her office.  “Supervisors are not aware of the trauma,” she said, and holding victims to conventional military standards “can look like reprisals for survivors.”

Woodward, who is about to launch a worldwide tour of 10 Air Force bases, said that sexual assault requires the same long-term understanding and treatment as other forms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

On a chilling note, she also observed that “there are more serial rapists out there than we think. It’s hard for us to believe that [fellow service members] are a serial rapist or a predator.”

Woodward noted it is more difficult to prosecute a one-on-one, he said/she said case “but if you can find additional victims, if you can go back and show them the grooming behavior of a predator,” it is often easier to get a conviction.

Rear Admiral Sean Buck, who has headed the Twenty-first Century Sailor Office only since June, said the Navy is now putting trained civilian counselors on aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships to care for victims who have deployed. The Navy is also cutting the number of outlets and selling hours for alcohol since liquor is often an element in sexual assaults.

Rear Adm. Daniel Neptun, of the Coast Guard Personnel Service Center, said that sexual assault does not simply involve victims and assailants.  “If you are a bystander and do not take action, you become part of the problem.”

Indeed, Brigadier Gen. Russell Sanborn, who has headed Marine and Family Programs at headquarters here for a whopping eight days, noted the paradox that “we will defend each other in battle, we will leave our cover and concealment under fire,” to save a comrade but won’t do the same in “bystander intervention.”  Sanborn cited increased officer training and victim care, and the use of nurse-examiners and sexual assault response teams as part of the Marines’ “holistic” approach to the problem.

Army Major Gen. Thomas Seamands, director of military personnel management, declared that “sexual assault is a crime anywhere but in the Army, it’s fratricide.”

Or sororicide.