Solving the sexual-assault crisis in the military


Evan Vucci, File/Associated Press

After a week that included a report claiming 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact in the military and an Air Force sexual assault prevention officer who was caught groping a woman in a parking lot, it's hard to believe the military's sexual-assault crisis could get any worse.

But it has.

On Tuesday, the Army disclosed that a sergeant first class in charge of handling sexual-assault cases at Fort Hood, Tex., is being criminally investigated over allegations of—wait for it—abusive sexual contact. The Post's Craig Whitlock is reporting that investigators are also looking into allegations that the sergeant may have forced a subordinate into prostitution.

In response to this sickening news, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the armed services to immediately “re-train, re-credential and re-screen” tens of thousands of military recruiters and sexual-assault prevention officers. Lawmakers expressed outrage, with several pointing to reforms in the military justice system that Hagel has already recommended, which would remove the authority officers currently have to throw out jury verdicts.

But will that really change anything? Re-training and re-screening recruiters and sexual-assault prevention officers might help the military identify the most embarrassing potential predators: those in close contact with young recruits and those charged with helping to prevent such crimes in the first place. And reforms to how the military treats convicted sexual predators should encourage more women to come forward.

But treating the real problem—that such crimes take place at shameful frequency among the ranks—will mean changing the culture of the military. That's a squishy antidote, of course, and one that's far easier said than done. That's why (Ret.) Maj. Gen. Robert Shadley, who found himself presiding over a Maryland training base in the mid-1990s that would become the site of one of the Army's worst sex scandals, believes changes must not only be cultural but structural in their scope.

I spoke recently with Shadley, who self-published a book to address what he learned from the Aberdeen Proving Ground scandal and the reprimand he received, as well as what solutions he thinks the military needs. He agrees with Hagel that repeated and continued training is necessary. He also agrees with the points made by former special assistant to the secretary of defense Monica Medina, who recently wrote in an op-ed that immediately discharging offenders is one of four things the military needs to do to curb sexual assaults.

But the most important change that must be made, Shadley says, is for the military to stop treating this as simply a women's issue, and to treat it as a "force protection issue." To do that, he says sexual-assault prevention should fall under the command of each unit's chief operations officer, rather than be marginalized as a unit "set up to the side." He says, "It's nice to have these sexual assault prevent officers, but this has got to be an operational issue."

In other words, it should get the same attention and high-level support as any other threat to soldier safety. "This is not a women's rights issue," Shadley says. "It's an abuse of power. We should have the same person who’s worried about protecting soldiers from enemy attack in charge of protecting soldiers from sexual predators. Until you make prevention of sexual assault a part of everyday life of the organization, it's going to be considered a secondary thing."

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

Leadership failures on sexual assault in the military

Military leaders' wrongheaded victim-blaming

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor · May 15, 2013