TODAY   |  May 25, 2013

Army sexual assault survivor speaks out

“The culture is too steeped with this type of behavior,” said Bridgette McCoy, who is a survivor of sexual assault and a former Army specialist. McCoy offered suggestions for how the military can create real change in order to prevent further sexual assaults. TODAY’s Erica Hill reports.

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>>> obama is paying tribute to the men and women in uniform who have given their lives in sacrifice and also shining the light on a growing problem of sexual assault and abuse in the armed services . kristen welker is live with more.

>> reporter: later today defense secretary chuck hagel will call for an end to sexual assault in the military when he addresses graduates at west point. it comes as we're learning about a new investigation. according to military officials, the army is looking into allegations of possible sexual misconduct at the space and missile defense command in ft. greely, alaska. no charges have been filed but it underscores the pervasiveness of this problem. now, on friday president obama was at the u.s. naval academy with a similar message. he called on graduates to end sexual assault in the military. his stern words come several weeks after the defense department released a report which showed that unreported cases of sexual assaults in the military rose by 37% last year to an estimated 26,000 cases. president obama said stopping this problem now is not just a matter of conduct, it's also a matter of national security . take a listen to what he had to say.

>> those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they threaten the trust and discipline that makes our military strong. that's why we have to be determined to stop these crimes.

>> reporter: in his weekly address today, president obama put the focus back on past military personnel reminding everyone that monday is memorial day , a day to honor those who have served and made the ultimate sacrifice. erica?

>> kristen welker at the white house . thank you. we have a gulf war veteran who testified recently about her experience with sexual asusault in the military and is with us this morning. thank you for being here. walk us through quickly for people not familiar with your story. what happened to you?

>> basically during my time in service at my first duty station i was raped within 90 days of getting to europe and within that 90 days i was assaulted again by a completely different soldier and i did not report it. and i went on with my life within the chain of command and worked my job and just basically transitioned on my own until i had a third situation that came up after a year of this sergeant sexually harassing me i went to the chain of command and said basically that i'm being harassed and i filed the papers to file a complaint and basically they said i misunderstood him and from that there was a very short period of time i was out of the military.

>> this had a really profound effect on you. it led to a number of other issues in your life. do you think based on the numbers that kristen just told us about in that pentagon survey, the increase in the number of sexual assaults , is the culture changing? do you think people are more comfortable than perhaps when you were in the service reporting things like that?

>> i don't think people are more comfortable reporting. i think what's happened is there's more raping. there's more sexual assault .

>> you think it's worse today?

>> i think so. within the chain of command people have become much more complacent and because of that there is an attitude that allows it to happen more.

>> strong statement. we just heard as well about defense secretary chuck hagel talking about the plan to retrain 25,000 people who were in these programs designed to help people respond to sexual assault . will that, you think, make a difference?

>> top to the bottom. the highest ranking military official to the lowest ranking enlisted person, i think that's the only way that it's going to change. the culture is too steeped with this type of behavior. it's not going to just be this one thing of training. there has to be prosecution. there has to be jail time. there has to be something that deters people from doing this type of criminal behavior .

>> in terms of that top to bottom change, is it something that you believe can happen in the near future?

>> i think it can happen. again, as i said before, mission essential. most branches of the military will send out something and say this is mission essential and pass it down and everybody has to do it and everyone is onboard. i don't perceive everyone is onboard. i perceive it's a rule and everybody is talking about it but i don't perceive they believe that it's mission essential and that everyone from the top to the bottom is onboard.

>> so as you said until that changes you don't think it will change. we appreciate you being with us and sharing your story this morning.