May 10, 2013

Monica Medina, who served in the Army for four years, was a special assistant to the secretary of defense from May 2012 to April 2013. She helped craft the policy that ended the “combat exclusion rule,” which precluded women from serving in the front lines of war zones.

The news that sexual harassment and assault in the military are more common than ever — not just that the number of reported incidents has climbed in the past two years but also that an estimated 26,000 personnel experienced unacceptable sexually aggressive and threatening behavior from their military colleagues — should come as no surprise to the Pentagon’s leaders: They have had the raw data for weeks. Moreover, the steps necessary to turn this situation around do not require months of study or reflection: These, too, should be well known to civilian and military leaders.

There has been tough talk, but now it is time for tough action to change the attitudes of every service member throughout the ranks and put an end to reckless and unprofessional behavior in the military. Here are four things that the Pentagon could do in the next 60 days to meaningfully reduce sexual assault and aggression in our armed forces:

First, crack down hard on drinking and drugs. The military’s attitude toward these “bad boy” behaviors is the true “don’t ask, don’t tell” issue among the ranks. Every recent sexual assault scandal, including the arrest just days ago of the lieutenant colonel who heads the Air Force’s unit on sexual-assault prevention — on charges of sexual battery — has involved alcohol abuse. Yet among the reforms the Pentagon is considering is a change that would give commanders limitless discretion to excuse “lesser included” offenses, such as excessive drinking that disrupts military order. Instead of winking at this behavior, the military should not tolerate excessive drinking or drug abuse. Benefits of such a change would likely include fewer auto accidents involving soldiers and fewer suicide attempts, as well as a decrease in sexual assaults.

Second, show offenders to the door. Commanders already have authority to rid their units of any service members whose behavior undermines cohesiveness, so those who assault or harass other service members can and should be discharged immediately. In the private sector, these people would be fired for abusive behavior toward co-workers; the military should be no different.

Third, provide victims of sexual assault with their own lawyers. Prosecutors can be as intimidating to victims as defense lawyers may be. In one prominent case, a victim was afraid to speak out for more than two years and steadfastly maintained that her interaction with her military trainer was consensual. The Army, Navy and Marines do not provide victims with lawyers, saying they are unnecessary and costly. But an Air Force pilot project in which military lawyers are assigned to victims has shown that women who have the benefit of advice from a lawyer of their own seem more willing to bring charges against their assailants. The military must make lawyers available to sexual harassment or assault victims in all the services — now. The defense secretary can accomplish this change with the stroke of a pen.

Fourth, hire and promote more women. Half the U.S. population is female, but the share of women in our armed forces has peaked around 15 percent. It could be much higher. When Marines say they are looking for a few good men, they mean it: The Corps has only about 25 female colonels. The military should actively recruit more women. It’s progress that 25 percent of the class that entered the Naval Academy last fall was female. Qualified women who are willing to serve ought to be allowed to do so. Until women make up a greater percentage of the military, it will be difficult for women to have an equal footing in the armed forces.

Changing the military’s culture, training, rules and practices sufficiently to eliminate sexual assaults in our armed forces will take determined leadership by the defense secretary and much more effort than the Pentagon has recently proposed. And women in the military at all levels must band together and speak up rather than blend in. T he military’s men cannot solve this problem alone. But these four simple steps — all of which are within the power of the Pentagon’s leaders to implement, without any new laws or studies — could make an immediate difference. The time for outrage is over; the time for action is now. That’s an order straight from the commander in chief.