The Pentagon reported yesterday that estimated sexual assault cases have surged by 35 percent in two years. Using anonymous surveys and sampling research, the Pentagon estimated that 26,000 personnel experienced “unwanted sexual contact” last year, up from about 19,300 in 2010. The Pentagon recorded 3,374 sexual assault reports last year, up from 3,192 in 2011. In 2011 and 2012, fewer that one in 10 cases ended with a sexual assault conviction or court-martial. The vast majority resulted in minor administrtative punishments or were dismissed.
The latest report follows closely on the heels of the arrest of Lt.Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, who led the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Unit. Krusinski is charged with groping a woman in a parking lot.
Command responsibility has emerged as a major issue in sexual assault cases, whereby unit and base commanders decide which cases go to a court-martial, who sits on the jury and can overturn a conviction without needing to offer an explanation. Senators Kristen Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill have taken the lead to change the existing system. Among the recommendations to reform the system are: 1) have a special office in which experienced prosecutors make the decisions in which reported sexual assault cases go to trial; 2) remove the power of commanders to overturn verdicts; and 3) give service members access to civil courts.
The issue of command responsibility came to wide public notice with the highly publicized case of Lt. Gen Craig A. Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force in Europe, who overturned the sexual assault conviction of a star fighter pilot. Another Air Force officer, Lt. Gen. Susan J. Helms, a former astronaut, tossed out the conviction for aggravated sexual assault of a captain at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
President Barack Obama has vowed to redouble efforts to get a handle on the Pentagon’s dismal sexual assault record, because he says it besmirches the very uniforms worn by members of the military services; however, Pentagon failures don’t seem to be for lack of trying. I previously blogged on a hearing conducted by Senator Kristen Gillibrand, in which beribboned officers told of the extraordinary efforts they are making to significantly reduce the instances of “unwanted sexual contact.” Each of the military services has a sexual assault prevention and response office and the Pentagon has an office of its own. Moreover, the general counsel of the Department of Defense testified that he was under a mandate to provide a report on what he is doing to address the sexual assault problem.
Some lawmakers say the many instances of sexual abuse in the military services constitutes a cultural problem and a high military official testified before Congress that the blame should fall on a “hook-up” culture. However, a caller to a talk show may have hit on another source of the problem: she spoke of how oppressive military life is, with troops being assigned multiple times to combat zones. Because the troops feel so powerless to have any control over their situations, the only power they can exercise is to abuse their fellow soldiers. This is only one person’s theory but it does seem to have some plausibility.