The U.S. military has stepped up investigations of high-ranking officers for sexual assault, records show, curtailing its traditional deference toward senior leaders as it cracks down on sex crimes.
Since September, the armed forces have court-martialed or filed sexual-assault charges against four colonels from the Air Force, Army and Marines. In addition, a Navy captain was found guilty of abusive sexual contact during an administrative hearing.
Historically, it has been extremely rare for senior military officers to face courts-martial. Leaders suspected of wrongdoing are usually dealt with behind the scenes, with offenders receiving private reprimands or removal from command with a minimum of public explanation.
“There’s not a lot of transparency when it comes to senior-
officer misconduct,” said Don Christensen, a former chief prosecutor for the Air Force who now is president of Protect Our Defenders, a group that advocates for victims of sex crimes in the military. “They don’t like the American public knowing what’s going on, so they drag their heels in getting information out.”
That has gradually changed as the Defense Department — under pressure from Congress and the White House — has revamped its policies to prevent sexual assault and to hold perpetrators accountable.
During the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 116 officers of all stripes were court-martialed, discharged or received some sort of punishment after they were criminally investigated for sexual assault. That was more than double the number from three years earlier, according to Defense Department figures.
Of last year’s cases, eight were against senior officers holding a rank equivalent to colonel or Navy captain or higher. While that figure may seem small, it represented a fourfold increase from 2012.
Overall, the vast majority of troops investigated for sexual assault are enlisted personnel, who accounted for 94 percent of all cases last year. In the active-duty military, enlisted troops outnumber officers by a ratio of 4.6 to 1.
But high-ranking leaders are finding they no are longer off-
limits as allegations of cringe-worthy behavior increasingly come to light in military courtrooms and public records.
This month, during a court-martial at Fort McNair in Washington, an Army colonel who worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a 15-year-old girl and taking photos of her nude. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.
In February, the Marine Corps charged the commander of its Wounded Warrior Regiment with sexually assaulting a female corporal, violating protective orders and other misconduct.
In January, at a disciplinary hearing, the Navy found the former captain of a guided missile cruiser guilty of abusive sexual contact and sexual harassment. An investigative report chronicled in embarrassing detail how he got drunk with crew members at a Virginia bar and brazenly pressured a junior officer to have sex with him to advance her career.
In December, the Air Force charged a colonel at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado with raping or assaulting four victims, committing adultery with four other women, and taking photographs of himself in uniform at his office — with his genitals exposed.
Pentagon officials say the rash of cases is evidence that senior officers will be held to the same standards as everyone else in uniform.
“We’ve made it abundantly clear that this is not tolerable,” said Nathan Galbreath, senior executive adviser for the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. “The numbers suggest that people are reporting when they see the officers appointed above [committing a crime], and they really do expect that their bosses walk the walk and talk the talk.”
The unofficial taboo against putting senior leaders on trial in sex-abuse cases was shattered three years ago when the Army prosecuted Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair on charges of forcible sodomy, adultery and other offenses. It was only the third time in 60 years that the Army had court-martialed a general for any type of offense.
Prosecutors ended up dropping most of the charges and cutting a plea deal that spared Sinclair jail time. But the spectacle of a general sitting in the dock as witnesses testified about his volatile affair with a junior officer captivated the military.
Since then, the Defense Department has tried to reassure lawmakers, the public and its own troops that it takes sex-assault allegations seriously. It has expanded awareness training, bolstered support for victims and required command-level review of all investigations.
There are signs that the training is starting to pay off.
Crew members from the U.S.S. Anzio, a guided missile cruiser, blew the whistle on their commanding officer for sexual misconduct last year, leading to his removal from the ship and his probable ouster from the Navy.
According to a Navy investigative report, the Anzio’s captain, Brian K. Sorenson, got drunk Aug. 30 at a pub party in Yorktown, Va., and began to make advances toward a female sailor who needed his approval to become certified as a surface warfare officer.
The sailor told investigators that Sorenson asked her how many people she had slept with, whether she liked having sex with women and whether she would let him have anal sex with her.
Her account was buttressed by an eyewitness who said he overheard the captain saying, “Does anal interest you?”
At some point, he also grabbed the woman on the buttocks and told her to report to his quarters on the Anzio the next morning, where he again pressured her to have sex, the Navy investigation found.
Crew members quickly intervened at the pub, with one telling investigators that the situation resembled a scene from “one of the Navy’s Sexual Assault Bystander Intervention Videos.” The ship’s executive officer grabbed the captain, and the party ended.
During the van ride back to the ship, however, an intoxicated Sorenson kept acting out and asked the male driver if he “liked anal,” according to the investigation.
As rumors spread on the ship about the captain’s behavior, crew members revolted. Other officers confronted the captain in the ship’s wardroom and demanded an outside investigation.
Sorenson apologized to the officers for his conduct the night before, according to the Navy’s investigative report. But he also blamed them for not intervening sooner.
“He said it was our fault for letting him drink too much,” an unidentified officer told investigators.
After an administrative hearing in January, Sorenson was found guilty of sexual harassment, abusive sexual contact and conduct unbecoming an officer, Navy officials said. He faces discharge proceedings from the Navy.
In an interview with Navy investigators, Sorenson admitted to drinking that night but declined to answer questions about whether he pressured the female subordinate for sex.
His attorney, Greg McCormack of Virginia Beach, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Other cases indicate that military investigators are pursuing evidence more aggressively than they may have in the past, regardless of the rank of their target.
During a court-martial at Fort McNair last week, Army Col. James C. Laughrey, a career intelligence official, pleaded guilty to child pornography charges and abusive sexual contact with a 15-year-old girl.
According to court documents, his actions started in 2009 and came to light years later only by chance. The victim, then a young adult, took a polygraph test during a job interview with an intelligence agency and was asked if she had ever been the victim of a crime.
The woman divulged the abuse but didn’t want to cooperate with an investigation or press charges against Laughrey, according to his defense attorney, Haytham Faraj. The intelligence agency nevertheless reported the matter to the Army, which found corroborating evidence on Laughrey’s computer.
“Frankly, they harassed her,” Faraj said, calling the case “an abusive government investigation.”
Laughrey admitted to his actions in court. When asked by the judge why he did it, he replied: “Your honor, I cannot give you a good answer for that. I do not understand or defend why I did it.”
Under the military justice system, senior officers are responsible for deciding whether individuals under their command should be prosecuted.
Some lawmakers and advocacy groups are pushing to strip commanders of that power and to give it instead to uniformed prosecutors. The Pentagon has resisted such proposals, saying they would undermine command authority.
When senior officers themselves are charged with sexual assault, it “makes it appear as if the fox was guarding the henhouse,” said Christensen, the president of Protect Our Defenders, which has lobbied Congress to change the law.
He cited the case of Col. Eugene Marcus Caughey, formerly the vice commander of the Air Force’s 51st Space Wing. In December, Caughey was charged with rape, assault and other charges in a case involving four women in Colorado, where he served at Schriever Air Force Base.
According to charging documents, Caughey raped one woman as he held her against the wall and floor, groped women on two other occasions, and violated an order from a two-star general to stay away from another victim.
In addition, the married colonel is charged with six counts of adultery — a crime in the military — for allegedly having consensual sex with four other women, according to the documents.
A preliminary hearing was held Friday to determine whether Caughey will face court-martial. A decision is pending. His attorney, Ryan Coward, declined to comment.
In other cases, even after charges have been filed against senior officers, the armed forces still cling to their old habit of trying to shield commanders from public embarrassment.
In November, the Air Force announced in a news release that Col. David S. Cockrum, former commander of the 51st Medical Group at Osan Air Base in South Korea, had been charged with sexual assault. The Air Force said he had been previously relieved of command for “fraternization” and “unprofessional relationships” but gave no other details.
When The Washington Post requested public records in the case against Cockrum, the leadership of the 7th Air Force, which oversees operations in South Korea, at first refused, citing a need “to protect the rights of Col. Cockrum and the integrity of ongoing legal proceedings.”
After repeated appeals, however, Air Force officials released documents showing that Cockrum had been charged with sexually assaulting men in two separate incidents in South Korea in 2014. He also had been charged with conduct unbecoming an officer.
Cockrum’s court-martial is scheduled for April 11. His military attorney did not respond to requests for comment placed through the Air Force.
The Marine Corps filed criminal sex-abuse charges on Feb. 12 against Col. T. Shane Tomko, the former commander of its Wounded Warrior Regiment in Quantico, Va.
The Marines kept the charges a secret, making no public announcement about the case. In response to a query from The Post last month, Marine officials at the Pentagon confirmed that Tomko had been charged with abusive sexual contact, obstruction of justice, illegal possession of steroids and other crimes.
Officials also revealed that Tomko had been relieved as commander a year earlier because of “a loss of confidence in his leadership.” But they would not provide other details or release public records in the case.
According to a copy of Tomko’s charging documents, seen by a Post reporter, the colonel was accused of sexually assaulting a female Marine corporal in October 2014 by forcibly kissing her on the mouth. He later referred to her as “a hot intriguing dyke who makes me wish I were a woman,” according to the documents.
Tomko faces a preliminary hearing scheduled for March 23 to determine if he will be court-martialed.
His military defense attorney, Marine Col. Stephen Newman, declined to comment.
Documents filed in civilian court show that Tomko has also been investigated by the Marines on allegations of sexually assaulting other women after he took charge of the Wounded Warrior Regiment in July 2014. As commander, he was responsible for overseeing battalions across the country that care for wounded and injured Marines.
According to a lawsuit filed against him in Circuit Court in Prince William County, Va., Tomko allegedly got drunk during a official trip to London in September 2014 and assaulted a civilian woman who worked for him by “shov[ing] his face into her breasts.”
Tomko denied the allegation in court filings and noted that the woman had also filed an administrative discrimination complaint against him with the federal government. The woman withdrew the lawsuit in January.
In an interview, the woman said she dismissed the lawsuit because her discrimination complaint was subsequently upheld. (The Post has a policy of not identifying victims of sexual abuse.)
She also said that Tomko had been disciplined — but not charged criminally — by the Marines last year for sexually assaulting her in London, as well as for a separate incident involving another female civilian working for the Wounded Warrior Regiment.
The Marines, she added, were slow to pursue her complaint against Tomko and dragged the case out.
“He’s the commander, that’s why it went on so long,” she said. “He’s the kind of guy everyone loves.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this report had the wrong first name for the lawyer representing Col. Eugene Marcus Caughey. His name is Ryan Coward.