Of those complaints, 91 were filed against male members of the US Army, 12 from the Navy, three from the Air Force and one from the Marine Corps.

The Pentagon considered the matter serious enough to call for an official investigation into how the Department of Defence handles crime in combat zones.

The investigation will also look at whether sufficient medical treatment and psychological counselling are being provided to US military victims.

In a February memorandum, Secretary of Defence Rumsfeld said, "Commanders at every level have a duty to take appropriate steps to prevent sexual assaults, protect victims, and hold those who commit offences accountable."

Congress reaction

Several members of Congress expressed outrage at the notion that some female service members serving in combat environments are the victims of sexual crimes committed by fellow members.

"Our military women put their lives on the line to defend our nation from our enemies – they should not have to defend themselves from their fellow soldiers too," said Representative Louise Slaughter, a Democrat from New York.

It is unclear exactly how many of the cases involved accusations of rape, but an Army spokeswoman said 48 of the complaints within that branch were classified as sexual assaults.

Rumsfeld says cases must be
thoroughly investigated

According to the spokeswoman, the Uniform Code of Military Justice defines "sexual assault" as rape, forcible sodomy or indecent assault—when someone "assaults a person to gratify his or her sexual desires".

The latter often involves some form of inappropriate and unwanted sexual contact.

Independent research

The Miles Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Connecticut that works on the issue of sexual abuse in the US military, reported that it had confirmed "83 claims of sexual assault" over the past 18 months.

Kate Summers, the foundation’s director of victim services, said the group had provided counselling to 38 female service members, roughly 80% of them said they had been raped or suffered an attempted rape in Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan or Bahrain.

Many of those alleged incidents took place in "staging areas", stations set up to house troops on the way to and from combat zones, Summers said.

Tents with dark lighting and a lack of privacy made these areas more susceptible to sexual assaults, she said.

US army reaction

Major Kristen Carle, a US Army spokeswoman, said the Army is committed to investigating the problem of sexual assault and is working to ensure that the victims of such crimes receive adequate care.

"Concurrent with the investigations and part of normal protocol, victims of alleged sexual assault received medical treatment and service, and assistance by their chain of command," Carle said.

“Our military women put their lives on the line to defend our nation from our enemies – they should not have to defend themselves from their fellow soldiers too”

Louise Slaughter,
a Democrat representative from New York

She also said the Army "has zero tolerance for sexual assault and rape".

"They are incompatible with the Army’s highest standards of professionalism and discipline," she said.

Long history

These are not the first allegations of sexual assaults against women in the US military.

Such charges were made during the first Gulf War and during the US conflict in Vietnam more than three decades ago.

Just last year, a scandal broke when dozens of female cadets at the US Air Force Academy claimed male cadets had sexually assaulted them.

In a 2003 study conducted by the Veterans Affairs Medical Centre in Iowa City, Iowa, 28% of 558 female veterans surveyed said they had been raped or suffered an attempted rape during their time in the military.

The study said environments in which military commanders condoned inappropriate sexual behaviour of various kinds increased the likelihood of rape against female service members.

Setting an example

Ultimately, responsiblity lies
with officers to set standards

Terri Spahr Nelson, the author of a book published in 2002 called, "For Love of Country: Confronting Rape and Sexual Harassment in the US Military," said the military’s chain-of-command structure creates situations from which service members take their cues on what is acceptable behaviour from their superior officers.

If commanders decide not to deal aggressively with issues of sexual harassment, they risk sending a message that sexual violence toward female members will be overlooked, Nelson said.

Women are often discouraged from even reporting sexual assaults, fearing they might be looked at as troublemakers, she said.

"If they do report it they’re made to be seen as if they are not being team players," she said.

But David Segal, director of the Centre for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland, said a small number of sexual crimes in the military are probably inevitable, given that the military is, to a certain extent, a microcosm of society.

"I think because [the military] is reflective of society there are a lot of things that go on in the military that we try to keep out, but they get in anyway," Segal said.