By Grant Welker

MediaNews

LOWELL -- U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, who has made ending military sexual assaults a priority in Congress, told students in a UMass Lowell course Friday that a "predatory culture" in the military needs to change and that change is coming too slowly.

"Real change is coming," Tsongas told students in a Psychology and Women course. "It's never fast enough."

Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat, has led numerous bills that were approved late last year aimed at cutting down assaults in the military.

One new law requires that a person found guilty of rape or sexual assault to be dismissed or dishonorably discharged, and another makes it easier for victims to transfer out of their units. Victims now also have access to a lawyer or a victims' advocate when interviewed by defense attorneys.

A Pentagon survey released last year found -- based on anonymous answers from personnel -- that 26,000 people in the military were sexually assaulted in 2012, a jump of 37 percent in two years. Among female personnel, 6.1 percent said they experienced "unwanted sexual contact." Among men, 1.2 percent reported unwanted contact.

Some degree of physical force was used in half the reported instances of assault. Only 17 percent of victims said they reported the incidents to a military authority or organization.

"Where would we be as a nation without the people willing to serve our country and put their lives on the line," she said. "But the last thing you want is people who put their lives on the line to be hurt by one of their own."

Military assault victims also include men, Tsongas stressed, even if those cases aren't often discussed.

"It's all about assertions of power," she said. "It's not about sex."

New legislation filed just this month by Tsongas and U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican, would require the Government Accountability Office to issue a report on the implementation of sexual-assault prevention policies, and that commanders and servicemembers be assessed on their support of sexual- assault prevention and response policies, among other changes.

In addition to the bills she's filed, Tsongas also is a co-chair of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus and the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee for oversight and investigations.

Tsongas also talked about what life was like growing up in a military family. She went to high school in Japan and spent some time living in Germany. It was a disciplined household, she said.

"Our family life was shaped in ways I probably didn't recognize," she said.

An Air Force captain who teaches at UMass Lowell said she's seen progress made on sexual assaults in recent years, which she attributed to Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh.

"It's been a big problem in the past," said Cheryl Steiner, who attended Tsongas' talk Friday. A motto of the Air Force administration, she said, is "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

The UMass Lowell ROTC will hold a training session in a few weeks to teach sexual-assault prevention and what warning signs to look for, Steiner said.

Follow Grant Welker on Twitter and Tout @SunGrantWelker.