Washington fury over military sexual assaults hits the Pentagon

President Obama calls for punishing, firing or discharging those involved

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A storm of outrage over sexual assaults within the U.S. military struck the Pentagon with intense fury on May 7, with public expressions of regret by top military leaders about a rising number of reported assaults and blunt, quick condemnation from members of Congress and President Obama.

The tempest was stirred primarily by the Defense Department’s disclosure that 26,000 military personnel said in a recent confidential survey that they had been the victims of unwanted sexual contact in 2012, a term used to describe incidents ranging from sexually-related touching to rape.

That represents an alarming average of more than 70 episodes a day, and a 36 percent increase since 2010, when the last survey was performed. The victims amount to 6.1 percent of all active-duty women and 1.2 percent of the men in the 2.2 million member  American military.

The president, when asked about the report during a press conference with the visiting South Korean president, seized the topic forcefully. “If it’s happening inside our military, then whoever carries it out is betraying the uniform that they’re wearing,” he said. “And they may consider themselves patriots, but when you engage in this kind of behavior that’s not patriotic — it’s a crime.  And we have to do everything we can to root this out.”

His voice rising, Obama said: “I have no tolerance for this ... I expect consequences. So I don’t want just more speeches or awareness programs or training but, ultimately, folks look the other way.  If we find out somebody is engaging in this stuff, they've got to be held accountable -- prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period. It's not acceptable.”

Anger was already widespread on Capitol Hill because an Air Force lieutenant colonel who directed the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention branch was himself arrested on Sunday on charges of sexually assaulting a woman in a Virginia parking lot. That arrest followed a congressional inquiry into repeated sexual assaults of female recruits by Air Force instructors at a base in Texas, and a growing controversy over the ability of military commanders to vitiate punishments for military personnel in their units who are accused of sexual misconduct.

 “This is a cultural issue, it is a leadership issue, it’s a command issue,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at a press conference where the report was released. He vowed to hold accountable leaders “at every level in the chain of command” for the “climate” within their units, and said “ultimately eliminating sexual harassment and sexual assault should be our goal.”

One of the report’s most troubling disclosures was that many service personnel remain afraid of reprisals for reporting sexual assaults despite recent efforts by the Pentagon officials to encourage such reports — suggesting a widespread belief that the military’s culture generally tolerates, rather than punishes, such conduct.

Of the large number who reported such assaults in the survey, for example, only 3,374 made their allegations formally, a 6 percent increase from 2011. Forty-seven percent of the women who experienced unwanted sexual contact indicated fear of retaliation or reprisal was their reason for not formally reporting the episodes, and 43 percent said they had heard about negative repercussions for others who had gone ahead.

Those fears, moreover, proved to be well-founded. Of the women who did file complaints, 31 percent indicated they experienced “social retaliation” while 26 percent said they experienced "a combination of professional retaliation, social retaliation, administrative action, and/or punishments," the report said.

Partly as a result, “it’s a vastly unreported crime,” Army Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, acknowledged to reporters. Nonetheless, both he and Hagel said they saw a bit of encouraging news in the increase in reported cases in the last year. “We have more victims coming forward for medical care and more cases [referred to the military justice system],” Patton said.

“It is clear the department still has much more work to do," said Hagel, who Obama said he had instructed “to go at this thing hard.” Hagel added, "This crime is damaging this institution ... There are thousands of victims in the department, male and female, whose lives and careers have been upended, and that is unacceptable."

The assault reports were considerably higher when service personnel were asked if they had been assaulted at any point in their career, not just in 2010. In that context, 23 percent of women and 4 percent of men reported being assaulted. Active duty assignments were the most threatening, with considerably fewer episodes among women in the National Guard and reserves.

Despite the size of the problem, the report found that only 880 of the 3,288 military and civilian suspects identified in sexual assault complaints last year had been disciplined for that misconduct, with more than half of those being charged in a court-martial.  Some cases were dismissed because the suspects were missing, dead, or were foreign civilians or members of foreign militaries. But in other cases, investigators did not bring the cases to a conclusion, commanders decided that evidence was lacking or the allegations were false, or punishments were meted out for nonsexual misbehavior.

The Pentagon’s report acknowledged that military authorities weren’t always prepared to handle sexual assault cases. In several cases reported by the Navy, for example, there were delays in administering rape kit tests and in one case the test was administered by a health care provider who wasn’t trained or certified in the procedure.

Hagel ordered a series of steps and reviews to increase the accountability of officers for what happens under their commands. He gave commanders until July 1 to inspect workspaces to make sure they are free of degrading materials, and he said the four military service chiefs have until Nov. 1 to recommend ways to assess officers and hold them accountable for their command climates.

Gen. Patton said that the assessments — which would include how well sexual assault prevention and victim care principles are incorporated into officers’ commands — could become part of the evaluation process for promotions.

The Defense Department also plans to hold meetings with sexual assault victims to talk about their experiences in reporting the crimes committed against them. And it has already created an expedited system of transfers for victims of sexual assault so they can escape their tormentors. Commanders have 72 hours to approve or turn down the request, and approved 216 of 218 of these requests last year, the report said.

Speaking about the arrest on sexual assault charges May 5 of Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, the service’s sexual assault prevention branch chief, Hagel said “we’re all outraged and disgusted by these very troubling allegations.” Air Force officials said they relieved Krusinski of his position as soon as they learned of the arrest; efforts to reach him for comment were not successful.

On Capitol Hill, House and Senate committees seized on the arrest as a sign of systemic problems. “While under our legal system everyone is innocent until proven guilty, this arrest speaks volumes about the status and effectiveness of DOD’s efforts to address the plague of sexual assaults in the military,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said at the opening of a hearing involving the Air Force’s leadership.

Gen. Mark Welsh, the service's chief of staff, told Levin’s panel that he and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley were "appalled" and that the Air Force has requested jurisdiction over Krusinki's case from the Arlington County police.

At the hearing, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., raised her voice at Donley, saying that the case suggested a “failing in training and understanding of what sexual assault is” within the Air Force. "This is not good enough," said Gillibrand, who has been advocating removal of sexual assault cases from the chain of command to encourage more victims to report their crimes with less fear of retribution. "I am highly concerned that so few victims feel they could ever receive justice that they won't report,” she said.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), questioned why Krusinski was chosen to lead the Air Force sexual assault prevention unit, wondering what sort of background check was conducted. “It is hard for me to believe that someone would be accused of that behavior by a complete stranger and not have anything in their file that would indicate a problem in that regard,” she told Welsh. “Have you looked at his file to determine that his file was absolutely pristine?

Welsh said he examined Krusinski's record, spoke to his supervisor, and found nothing that disqualified him for his postition.

McCaskill, perhaps speaking for all her colleagues, told Welsh, “I will be watching very carefully who is selected to replace Lt. Col. Krusinski because I think it is one of those time when you’ll be able to send a message, and I think it’s important we do it.” She already is holding up the nomination of Air Force Lt. Gen. Susan Helms to be vice commander of the U.S. Space Command while awaiting more information about Helms' decision to overturn a jury conviction in a sexual assault case.

As a result of congressional furor over a similar case, Hagel urged Congress last month to eliminate a commander's power to overturn a court martial, except for certain minor offenses, and require a written explanation for any adjustments in sentences. He reiterated at his news conference Tuesday that he wants Congress to act on his recommendations.