This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.
Nothing better sums up the military’s problem regarding sexual assault than the mug shot of Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski.
The officer in charge of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention programs had been arrested — on suspicion of sexual battery in a parking lot against a woman he did not know. Police say she fought him off and called 911.
That someone like Krusinski – an Air Force Academy graduate – may not have gotten the message about unwanted sexual advances shows how far the military still must go to address the problem.
And it’s a big one. Based on anonymous surveys, the Defense Department estimates that about 26,000 service members were sexually assaulted in 2012 – an increase of almost 37 percent over the previous year. Sexual assault was defined as anything from rape to “unwanted sexual touching” of private parts. Only 3,374 of those assaults were reported in 2012.
Why are so few reported? The survey suggests that victims fear retaliation and have little confidence that the military will prosecute the offense.
Sadly, that has often been the case. The Pentagon says that 62 percent of victims experienced retaliation after reporting an assault. And there have been some well-publicized cases of the military overturning guilty verdicts in sexual assault cases. Fewer than one in 10 reported cases of sexual misconduct end with conviction at court-martial; most result in administrative discipline or dismissal. Those convicted of sex crimes are often allowed to stay in the military.
With the military falling short in reducing sexual assault statistics, lawmakers are hoping to force some changes. They’re proposing legislation that would remove commanders’ authority to change or override guilty verdicts in serious cases and dishonorably discharge anyone convicted of a sex crime. And Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is proposing that special victims’ counsels be made available to all assault victims.
Empowering victims, firing offenders and removing cases from the chain of command are good ideas. But the military also must do more to address a culture that seems to tolerate sexual assault and blame the victim when it happens. One idea: Hold commanders more accountable for their subordinates’ bad behavior. Regard offenses as reflections of poor training and a failure of leadership.
With women filling more roles than ever in the military, perceived indifference to sexual assault can interfere with recruiting and retaining good candidates. The military can ill afford to alienate some of its best and brightest.