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Austin vows stronger action against sexual assault in the military

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrives to speak at the Pentagon on Feb. 19. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Friday vowed to take stronger action against sexual crimes in the military after a Marine said in a viral video that the service had failed to punish her “perpetrator,” whom defense officials described as a colleague accused of disseminating private imagery of her without her consent.

Calling the video “deeply disturbing,” Austin acknowledged in his first media briefing as Pentagon chief that the Defense Department needed to do more to curb a problem that has persisted despite years of campaigns, training and high-level promises to contain it.

“We have been looking at this for a long time in earnest, but we haven’t gotten it right,” Austin, a retired four-star Army general, said. “My commitment to my soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, and dependents is we’re going to do everything in our power to get it right.”

In one of his first actions after being confirmed as Pentagon chief last month, Austin ordered senior defense officials to provide data on incidents of sexual assault and harassment and how they have been handled, a move he described as a first step toward a more effective response.

“You can look for us to take additional steps in looking in detail at ourselves and what has worked, what hasn’t worked and what measures we need to take going forward to ensure that we provide for a safe and secure and productive environment for our teammates,” Austin told reporters. “I think any other approach is, in my view, irresponsible.”

Austin also addressed a raw, emotional TikTok video that spread widely on social media on Thursday night after it was posted by Not In My Marine Corps, a group that advocates for survivors of sexual assault and harassment among service members.

The Marine in the video said she was able to see her “perpetrator,” another Marine, in court and had initially been frustrated because she believed he would be allowed to leave the service with an honorable discharge. But then she learned his commanding general, whom she did not name, had decided to retain him, even though he had admitted to the assault, she said through tears.

“This is exactly why . . . females in the military . . . kill themselves,” she said in profanity-laced remarks.

Asked about the Marine’s remarks, Austin said: “I found the video deeply disturbing, and I’ve asked my staff for additional information, and I’ll leave it at that.”

A Marine official with knowledge of the case said it focuses on the distribution of private imagery of the woman without her consent. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Austin, the country’s first African American defense secretary, is promising more effective leadership as the military attempts to reckon with sexual assault and racial discrimination, in addition to what is believed to be a smaller problem with support for domestic extremist groups in the ranks.

According to the military’s annual sexual assault report for fiscal 2019, there were nearly 8,000 reports of sexual assault involving a service member as a victim or a subject that year, a slight increase from fiscal 2018.

On Friday morning, before Austin spoke about the video, Marine Corps officials said they were looking into the case. “Sexual assault is a crime, is unacceptable and violates our core values of honor, courage and commitment,” Capt. Casey Littsey, a Marine spokeswoman, said.

Later in the day, the Marine Corps said in a statement on Twitter that it was aware of the video: “The Marine Corps takes all allegations of misconduct seriously. The Marine’s command @iimefmarines has taken action to ensure the Marine is safe.”

As a policy, The Washington Post does not identify victims of sexual crimes without their consent.

In a statement on Twitter, the II Marine Expeditionary Force said the video “ refers to an allegation of misconduct regarding the wrongful appropriation & distribution of personal information. The current administrative separation process for the accused perpetrator mentioned in the video is ongoing.”

Erin Kirk-Cuomo, co-founder and executive director of Not In My Marine Corps, said in an interview Friday that the case was handled at the administrative level by the Marine Corps through a process known as nonjudicial punishment.

The accused Marine was recommended for removal from the service by a separation board, Kirk-Cuomo said. But Brig. Gen. Forrest C. Poole III, the commander of the 2nd Marine Logistics Group at Camp Lejeune, N.C., decided to keep the Marine in the military, she said.

Littsey later referred questions to Camp Lejeune. On Friday afternoon, Marine officials there had not responded to questions about the case, including whether it was under review at a higher level, but disputed that the process was complete.

The case comes after a scandal in 2017 in which hundreds of Marines were investigated for sharing nude images of female colleagues without their consent through a private Facebook group called Marines United. The situation prompted congressional intervention and numerous courts-martial.

Kirk-Cuomo said on Friday that the new case “looks like Marines United 2.0” and questioned how the case has been handled.

“It’s still a form of sexual violence, and it didn’t go to a court-martial,” she said.

Austin declined to say more about any action he might take in the case. “We want to make sure that, you know, I preserve my ability to adjudicate or take action or whatever needs to happen,” he said. “But the first thing’s first — we have to get the facts.”

Alex Horton contributed to this report.