The Washington Post

The cowardly war on our women in uniform

The best news of the week for President Obama has got to be that some Republicans are actually talking about impeaching him. (Remember how well that went over with the public last time? No?)

The not-so-hot news, of course, includes quite a fun-pak of scandals: On Benghazi, the current obsession is the editing of e-mails about the editing of talking points, though what I still want to know is why our people were left so vulnerable after repeated warnings that security was pitiful at the so-called consulate where four Americans died.

The IRS, meanwhile, has been targeting conservatives groups — in particular, apparently, those that make no bones about hating taxes. And rounding out the parade, here comes the Department of Justice snooping on snoops at the Associated Press with what closely resembles disregard for both common sense and the Constitution.

Here’s one outrage, though, that Americans of all stripes can agree on: Our women in uniform have for some time now been more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted by one of their own than to be injured in battle. And so far, efforts to call off the war on our women in uniform have only highlighted how deep the problem runs.

Late Tuesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered all branches of the military to “re-train, re-credential and re-screen” recruiters and sexual-assault prevention officers, some of whom seem not to know that the programs were supposed to prevent abuse rather than perpetuate it.

That announcement followed the news that the Army sergeant in charge of sexual-assault cases at Fort Hood, Tex., is himself being investigated — and stands accused of forcing a subordinate into prostitution.

The alleged pimp should not be confused with the Air Force colonel who ran sexual-assault prevention programs right up until he was arrested in Arlington County recently, on charges that he groped and battered a total stranger in a parking lot near the Pentagon.

George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, said Hagel is beyond furious: “I cannot convey strongly enough his frustration, anger and disappointment over these troubling allegations and the breakdown in discipline and standards they imply.” The president, too, has said he won’t stand for such behavior, and the last secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, said the same.

But what will it take to get officials to acknowledge that the military either can’t or won’t police its own when it comes to sexual assault?

A year ago this week, I wrote that the “scale of the problem is a disgrace: the Pentagon itself estimates that there were 19,000 sexual assaults in our military last year – though only 3,192 of these were officially reported. In a typical year, fewer than 500 cases ever go to trial, and fewer than half of those result in convictions.”

Since then, despite pressure from women in Congress and encouraging but ultimately empty talk from the DoD and the White House, the situation has only worsened.

Last week, the Pentagon released a report estimating that the number of sexual assault victims had grown 35 percent in the past two years. Last year, some 26,000 of those who serve experienced “unwanted sexual contact.” Reporting is barely up at all, with only 3,374 sexual-assault reports filed. And not one but two Air Force generals, one of them a woman, granted clemency to convicted sex offenders under their command.

Secretary Hagel, now that you’re good and mad, please understand that any retraining that’s a retread of the way you did it the first time is not going to work.

A year ago this week, Service Women’s Action Network executive director Anu Bhagwati told me that because of the likelihood of retaliation within the chain of command, “there’s still no deterrent to sexual assault in the military,’’ and no access to the kind of civil remedies that civilian victims can pursue, because service members can’t sue for damages.

That hasn’t changed, either. And until it does, this scandal isn’t going anywhere.

Melinda Henneberger
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and She the People anchor who is spending this semester as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.



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