When it rains, it pours.
The military is facing a trio of disturbing headlines Tuesday related to sexual assault within the armed forces. The first—and arguably most embarrassing—is news that the leader of the Air Force's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response unit, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, has been charged with "misdemeanor sexual battery" by the Arlington County police.
Yes, you read that right: The person in charge of the branch's "commitment to eliminate incidents of sexual assault" allegedly groped a woman in a parking lot, police say. You can't make this stuff up. Even President Obama has weighed in on the charges.
The second is a report that Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, is blocking the promotion of one of the Air Force's top female generals after it was discovered that the officer, Lt. Gen. Susan J. Helms, overturned the conviction of a captain found guilty of sexual assault. The case is an example of the questionable way the military justice system allows senior commanders to veto court-martial findings without explanation—an authority Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has recently said he will ask Congress to remove.
And the third is the now ill-timed release of the military's annual report on sexual assault in the military. The report, which the Pentagon was preparing to release Tuesday, reportedly shows a 6-percent rise in reported assaults in fiscal year 2012, up from 3,192 the year before to 3,374. Even more disturbing is the number of people who reportedly claimed in an anonymous survey that they had experienced “unwanted sexual contact." That number skyrocketed 35 percent, from 19,300 in 2010 to 26,000 last year.
What's most concerning about those numbers is not just their rise, but the even wider gulf between the number of formally reported assaults and the number of anonymous ones informally reported in such surveys. We may not know whether the increase is the result of more attacks or of more programs that encourage reporting, but we do know there's a lot more work military leaders must do to make it culturally acceptable for victims to come forward and report possible crimes.
The military can start, of course, by reforming a justice system that allows leaders to overturn convictions without explanation. In an environment where this is allowed, it’s understandable why victims could think it's not worth the risk to report unwanted advances in the first place. Also problematic, according to a recent GAO report, are inconsistencies in first-responder medical care that can "erode servicemembers’ confidence" and make them reluctant to seek treatment. And of course each branch must put people in positions of leadership on this issue who have the utmost credibility. The Air Force's record on sexual assault matters was already under fire following the Lackland base scandal; the Krusinski charges could very well shake victims' confidence in their leaders even further.
Any real, lasting changes to a problem this epidemic in its scope are not going to happen overnight, especially in an organizational culture as tradition-bound and entrenched as the military's. Ultimately, stamping out sexual abuse cannot be done by addressing each incident in isolation. It must be a part of how the military's leaders choose to treat women—the most common victims of sexual assault—overall.
Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, implied as much when he said in January that "when you have one part of the population that’s designated as warriors, and another part of the population that’s designated as something else, I think that disparity begins to establish a psychology" that contributes to the sexual assault problem. The roots of the abuse problem are more complex than simply that women were long kept out of formal combat roles, of course. But maybe, as Dempsey said, “the more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally.”
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.