Pentagon Reports 35 Percent Increase in Military Sexual Assaults

 The issue of sex crimes in the military jumped into the headlines this week, when the Pentagon reported a 35 percent increase in military sexual assaults last year. The report came two days after the chief of the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention branch was arrested for allegedly groping a woman outside a bar near the Pentagon. 

According to the Pentagon report, an estimated 26,000 members of the military were sexually assaulted in unreported incidents last year, which was 35 percent more than in 2010.

There was anger in Washington over the numbers, expressed by President Obama and by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who took on the issue during testimony from top military officials.

“The bottom line is, I have no tolerance for this,” the president said when asked about the report. “If we find out somebody’s engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable, prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period.”

Obama announced that he had ordered Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “to step up our game exponentially” to prevent sex crimes and said he wanted the victims to know “I’ve got their backs.”

Military officials are worried that the trend could threaten recruiting and retention of women in uniform, particularly as they attempt to incorporate women into every aspect of military service.

The report comes just two days after police in Arlington, Va., arrested Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, the chief of the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention branch, and charged him with sexual battery for grabbing a woman’s breasts and buttocks outside a bar near the Pentagon. Officials said Krusinski, who apparently was intoxicated, was removed from his post after the arrest.

“This department may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime and the perception that there is tolerance of it could very well undermine our ability to effectively carry out” the military’s mission, Hagel said at a Pentagon news conference.

Hagel listed the steps he had ordered, including holding commanders accountable for preventing sexual assaults, expanding programs to help victims and screening recruiters and training instructors.

In one of the more outrageous cases in the military, an investigation that began in 2011 at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas turned up 59 cases of sexual assaults of military recruits by drill instructors.

The Air Force’s top commander, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, appeared to blame broader society in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he pointed out that 20 percent of women report they had been sexually assaulted “before they came into the military.”

“So they come in from a society where this occurs,” he said. “Some of it is the hook-up mentality of junior high even and high school students now, which my children can tell you about from watching their friends and being frustrated by it.”

Reported sexual assaults of both men and women in the military rose to 3,374 last year, up from 3,192 a year earlier, according to the Pentagon. About 1 in 4 of those who were assaulted and received medical care declined to press charges.

Many victims are reluctant to come forward, according to experts, because they lack faith in the military justice system and fear their careers could suffer if they file criminal charges, particularly against higher-ranking officers.

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) are planning to introduce legislation to amend the military code so that military prosecutors are put in control of all legal decisions on sexual assaults and other major crimes, eliminating the possibility that commanders can intervene.

Boxer said the increase in sexual assaults was “horrifying” and vowed to change how the military “investigates and prosecutes these heinous crimes.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) announced yesterday that she was blocking the nomination of Lt. Gen. Susan Helms, whom Obama had nominated for vice commander of Air Force Space Command, because Helms last year overturned the conviction of Capt. Matthew S. Herrera, who was found guilty of aggravated sexual assault of a female lieutenant at Vandenburg Air Force Base.

“That is the crux of the problem here, because if a victim does not believe that the system is capable of believing her, there’s no point to risking your entire career,” McCaskill said at a Senate hearing with Air Force officials.

The Air Force responded by releasing a memo, written by Helms, in which she expressed doubts about the victim’s testimony that she was asleep and did not consent to sex. Instead of sexual assault, Helms found Herrera guilty of committing “an indecent act,” a lesser offense, and he was involuntarily discharged in December.

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