PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii - Top U.S. Navy commanders in the Asia-Pacific region have formed a task force to discuss sexual assault issues as the branch fights to stem a military-wide problem within its ranks.
Leaders in the U.S. Pacific Fleet from all over its wide territory met by teleconference this week for the first time to outline how they'll share successes and failures during monthly meetings.
Fleet Master Chief Marco Ramirez, the fleet's top enlisted sailor, told rank-and-file sailors aboard the USS Paul Hamilton destroyer about the task force on Thursday during a round-table discussion on sexual assault.
Speaking to more than a dozen sailors and victims' advocates in a conference room, Ramirez said sexual assaults hurt the Navy's ability to be ready when called to duty.
"Our value is our sailors, so I just want to make sure everybody understands that. We're all human beings so we want to take care of you," Ramirez said. "Because if we're worried about these problems, we can't fight."
He told The Associated Press in an interview that the assaults undercut trust among sailors working together and keep the branch from attracting top enlistees.
Captain Darryn James, chief spokesman of Pacific Fleet, said the task force organized by fleet Admiral Cecil Haney includes commanders from Hawaii, California, Washington and Guam, as well as Korea, Japan and Singapore.
The task force and visits by Ramirez to fleet outposts around its command area are examples of several initiatives across the military to reduce sexual assaults.
The Pentagon estimated in May that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, up from an estimated 19,000 in 2011.
Military leaders are trying to show they can deal with the issue as congressional lawmakers consider stripping commanders of some authority in assault cases.
The U.S. House passed a defense bill in June that would increase punishments and strip commanders of the power to overturn convictions. The Senate has yet to consider the bill.
Greg Jacob, policy director of the Service Women's Action Network, which supports changing authority on sexual assault cases, said commanders would be able to have more blunt conversations if separated from prosecutions.
Commanders could then be held more accountable for what happens under their watch, Jacob said. Putting the "commanders on the line" would "help fix the culture."
Jacob said the Navy has partnered with civilian experts to prosecute sexual assaults.
During the round table, sailors told Ramirez that Navy leaders needed to show changes themselves to usher in a culture change.
Ramirez agreed, saying he didn't want leaders who would bristle at tough decisions. Good leaders are treating sexual assault with the same importance as operational and other everyday issues, he said.
"To have this subject that's on the same playing field tells you that it's got everybody's attention," Ramirez said. "We can't bow down to it."