Fine Print: Military sexual assault crisis cuts deep

Walter Pincus
Reporter May 15, 2013

The Joint Chiefs of Staff are preparing for a battle on Capitol Hill, but they’ll be playing defense.

The growing crisis of military sexual assaults and the failure to deal seriously with the issue over the past decade are going to lead to legislation that threatens to break the chain of command.

Anyone who has served in the military in wartime learns to respect the importance of the chain-of-command concept and the need to obey orders. Soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen do what they are told and must be able to trust that their superiors know what they are doing.

As an Army draftee at the end of the Korean War, I came to understand this. There was no going to someone else to argue against an order or direction. In a battle or a firefight, everyone must work together. Of course, this requires everyone be treated fairly and honestly so the whole system has integrity.

That hasn’t been the case regarding sexual assault, and in the current atmosphere, it’s all but guaranteed that the number of examples will grow. Tuesday’s newest allegation about a non-commissioned officer assigned to the sexual assault prevention office at Fort Hood, Tex., being investigated for sexual misconduct, abuse and maltreatment of soldiers has caused more legislators to speak up. Bet on more congressional hearings.

For example, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) has announced he will use his Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee hearing next Wednesday, when Army leaders come to defend their fiscal 2014 budget request, to ask questions about the Fort Hood sergeant.

A new chapter will open in a military trial set for next month at Fort Bragg, N.C. Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, former deputy commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division, is charged with forcible sodomy and indecent acts involving three female officers. The military judge presiding over a pretrial hearing Tuesday ordered the testimony of two Army generals after the defense alleged that Pentagon officials may have placed improper pressure on Gen. Dan Allyn, Sinclair’s boss, to bring the charges.

Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a commanding officer should not be influenced by his superiors in making such a decision.

Military sexual assault isn’t new. In February 2004, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ordered a 90-day review of sexual assaults after allegations of crimes committed against female soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait.

One of the review’s eventual findings sounds familiar: “Sexual assault risk factors in the military do not appear to be significantly different from those reported in civilian literature.”

The programs set up eight years ago haven’t worked. The Pentagon’s own report last week estimated the number of military women and men victimized was up by 35 percent over the past two years.

More signs of the crisis: ■■

●While 96 percent of women and 97 percent of men said they had participated in Pentagon sexual assault training in the past 12 months, only 16 percent of the women and 25 percent of the men responding to a survey “indicated sexual assault in the military is less of a problem today than four years ago.”

●While 70 percent of women and 83 percent of men said they “would feel free to report sexual assault without fear of reprisals to a large extent,” only 44 percent of those women who reported assaults were satisfied with their commanders’ handling of their cases; 33 percent said they were dissatisfied.

●In fact, only 3,374 reports of sexual assault were filed in fiscal 2012, last week’s report said, while the Pentagon survey said some 26,000 troops told the survey they had experienced “unwanted sexual contact.”

●Women who had been sexually harassed said that more than half of the offenders were military co-workers, 28 percent were military personnel and 27 percent were “in their military chain of command.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has taken some steps in reaction to the disclosures, but they are too late.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services military personnel subcommittee, along with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and others, will introduce legislation Thursday that would take decision making on sexual offenses out of the chain of command.

Under the bill, an experienced military prosecutor, grade colonel or higher, would decide whether a matter goes to a court-martial. Commanders would continue to deal out nonjudicial punishment under Article 15 of the Military Code for offenses not sent to trial by the prosecutors.

Whether that will satisfy the Joint Chiefs is unclear.

One thing appears certain: Their leadership neglect in the face of this problem has given Congress the upper hand. Whatever bill arrives at the White House is bound to get President Obama’s signature because he, too, sees military sexual assaults as an outrage.

On May 8, Obama said what should have been done in 2004:

“I don’t want just more speeches or awareness programs or training but, ultimately, folks look the other way. If we find out somebody is engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable — prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period.”

That’s how you keep the chain of command from rusting.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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