Hagel steps up sexual assault outreach

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday visited the military’s sexual assault hotline as part of a continued effort to stem criticism of how the Pentagon handles the issue.

The move came less than a week after the Defense Department announced it would conduct a top-to-bottom review of its military justice system and how it handles sexual assault cases.

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“It is important for people to know that the secretary of Defense is very focused on stopping sexual assault in the military,” Hagel told The Associated Press.

The Defense Department has come under criticism from congressional lawmakers over the last several months, with some charging the Pentagon doles out light punishments for those accused of assault or adultery.

The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, located in Washington, D.C., costs the Pentagon around $2.76 million per year. Its counselors have assisted more than 20,000 service members and their families since 2011, according to their own estimates.

The organization is designed to appear independent from the Pentagon so that service members are more likely to call the hotline or get in touch via the Web.

During his visit Hagel was briefed on the 24-hour operation and spoke with staffers about their personal backgrounds.

“This is not a job for everybody,” Hagel told reporters. “They hear some pretty rough stories.”