Military Sexual Assaults Are Up, as Air Force Assault Prevention Officer Arrested for Sexual Battery

Pentagon brass say they're working on the problem but balk at meaningful changes that would safeguard those claiming assault against their superiors.

In a way, the military can create a perfect storm for triggering an eating disorder. Army parade via Shutterstock

You could say that the May 7 arrest of Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, the chief officer of the Air Force’s sexual abuse prevention program, on charges of sexual battery was an instance of perfect timing. Krusinski’s arrest came just a day after the Pentagon reported an apparently significant increase in the numbers of sexual assaults by members of the military, most often against women in uniform. Together, the events crystallize the military’s sexually corrupt culture and its failure to make meaningful changes to address that culture.

According to the Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military for the 2012 fiscal year, an estimated 26,000 military personnel, most of them women, experienced sexual assault by colleagues, in stark contrast to the Pentagon’s estimate of 19,000 the year before. That’s a nearly 37 percent increase.

The story of sexual assault in the armed forces is well-known, having first broken into public view during the Tailhook scandal of 1991, when Lt. Paula Coughlin, a courageous Navy officer assaulted during the institutionalized debauchery and predation that marked the annual Tailhook Association meeting for Navy pilots and aircraft personnel, stepped forward to report what she had experienced.

After much hand-wringing, several reports (including one that whitewashed the incident and was eventually rejected because another whistleblower, then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Barbara S. Pope, refused to accept the results), and the subsequent censure of three admirals, all branches of the military were supposed to be dedicated to fixing the problem. That was 20 years ago.

As the New York Times editorialized today:

The new Pentagon report and Colonel Krusinski’s arrest have shown the Air Force’s assault prevention efforts to be an absurd joke. Whatever steps taken in the past year to reduce rampant assault are plainly inadequate.

In fact, so widespread and ongoing is the military’s sexual assault problem that producer Amy Ziering and director Kirby Dick received an Oscar nomination for their 2012 documentary on military rape culture, The Invisible War, in which the filmmakers contend that “a woman serving in Iraq or Afghanistan is more likely to be raped by a fellow service member than to be killed in the line of fire.”

President Obama, responding to the Pentagon report released this week, issued a stern warning to service personnel, saying, “If we find out somebody’s engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable, prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period.”

He also made a promise to individuals who report such crimes: “I’ve got your backs.” But does his administration really?

Instances of sexual abuse in the military are believed to be even more underreported than those in the civilian population. As Jennifer Springer, who was deployed in Iraq as part of a Military Police team, told journalist Helen Bennett, “You can’t fit in if you make waves about it. You rat somebody out, you’re screwed. You’re gonna be a loner until they eventually push you out.” (Bennett’s 2007 report for Salon formed the basis for The Invisible War.)

If your abuser is your superior officer, as in Springer’s case, your career and reputation could easily be destroyed by making a report.

That might explain why, in the Pentagon’s new report, researchers based their estimate of 26,000 sexual assaults on responses to a confidential survey distributed to service members, and not on the 3,374 sexual assault reports received last year by the armed services. (Even those increased from the previous year’s report, which recorded just under 3,200 sexual assault complaints.) Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH), who co-chairs the House Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, noted that the Pentagon report states that 62 percent of those who reported sexual assaults felt they were later retaliated against, according to Huffington Post reporter Molly O’Toole.

In a May 7 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) proposed a way to change that: remove the complaint process from the chain of command. But Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, whose appointment the president fought for, is balking at that idea.

At a press conference the same day, the New York Times reported Hagel’s response to Gillibrand’s suggestion: “It is my strong belief that the ultimate authority has to remain within the command structure.”

Nonetheless, says the Times’ Jill Steinhauer, Gillibrand intends to introduce legislation next week that would direct sexual assault complaints to military prosecutors, outside of the victim’s chain of command.

In addition, Steinhauer writes:

Senators Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, and Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire, have introduced legislation that would provide victims of sexual assault with a special military lawyer and change some of the procedures for courts-martial in the case of sexual assault charges.

Another problem plaguing attempts at reform is the ability of senior officers to overturn the sexual assault convictions of those in their command.

According to the Associated Press, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has placed a hold on the nomination of Air Force Lt. Gen. Susan Helms to the post of vice commander of the U.S. Space Command because, according to the AP’s Donna Cassata, “In February 2012, Helms rejected the recommendation of legal counsel and overturned the conviction of an Air Force captain who had been found guilty of aggravated sexual assault of a female lieutenant.”

Together with Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-MA), Turner is sponsoring legislation that would make it impossible for an officer to overturn a court-martial conviction.

A Department of Veterans Affairs study reported in 2004 that military women who are sexually assaulted are nine times more likely to suffer from post traumatic stress disorder than women colleagues who have not suffered such assaults.