The Pentagon has launched a special chat room where victims of sexual assault can draw on and provide support to each other in a way that only they can.
"Survivors of sexual assault have told us that being able to discuss their concerns with peers can provide a level of support not available through other means," Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica L. Wright said in a statement released by the Pentagon on Thursday.
"Safe HelpRoom," the name of the chat room, is located at SafeHelpline.org, the DoD's online crisis support service for soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen that have been sexually assaulted.
Though administered by the Defense Department, the site is operated under contract by the non-profit Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, or RAINN. The non-profit has been operating the National Sexual Assault Hotline with more than 1,100 local organizations across the country since 1994.
A Defense Department survey estimated that 26,000 service members were victims of sexual assault or "unwanted sexual contact" in 2011-2012, up from 19,000 incidents in 2009-2010.
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called sexual assault “a persistent problem" following a separate report released last December. The Pentagon's focus on the issue has reached new levels of concern in recent months as officials in leadership positions, including the former head of Air Force's sexual assault prevention and response team, have been charged with the crime.
At separate commencement exercises for newly commissioned officers graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy, President Obama, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said sexual assault threatened the trust, credibility and good order of the armed forces.
In the statement released on Thursday, Wright called the new Safe HelpRoom a “groundbreaking development" in the Defense Department's efforts to support victims of rape and sexual assault.
The chat sessions are beginning immediately and will be available twice a week in two-hour sessions. The schedule is available online, as are polls to determine session topics to address specific concerns.
Maj. Gen. Gary S. Patton, director of the DoD's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said the Self HelpRoom was built with safeguards" to ensure a safe and welcoming place for survivors to connect."
Participants have to agree to a set of ground rules of acceptable behavior before they can join a session, he said in a statement. Also, participant comments are reviewed before they are posted to the group to make sure they adhere to the rules, he said. The point is to provide an environment for positive and supportive discussion, he said.
At the main site, Safe Helpline, staff provides one-on-one assistance and up-to-date referrals for support services and resources on and off military bases. Service referrals include information for sexual assault response coordinators, as well as legal, medical, mental health and spiritual military resources, according to the DoD statement.
The referral database also houses information for local civilian and Department of Veterans Affairs resources for helpline users seeking information and crisis support away from the military response system.