Military must address sexual assault within its ranks

The statistics are staggering. According to the US Department of Defense (DoD) Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) annual report, between October of 2011 and September of 2012 sexual assaults within the US military occurred at a rate of over 70 per day, a 6 percent increase over the previous year. 26,000 service members reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact on an anonymous survey, although only 3,374 victims formally reported being assaulted. The reporting rate of just below 13 percent is lower than the national average, which is believed to be approximately 14 percent. In other words, 86 – 87 percent of all victims of sexual assault do not report the crime (SAPRO).

Victims seem to know that even if they do report the assault, it is unlikely that the perpetrator will be punished. According to the DoD annual report, in addressing unrestricted reports, those that the military can investigate through the military justice process, “of 1,714 alleged military offenders, commanders took action on 1,124, or 66 percent. This includes 594 cases in which the military initiated court martial proceedings, barely more than the 590 cases in which it was determined that command action was not possible or was declined altogether. For 388 of these, the DoD found ‘insufficient evidence of a crime to prosecute or unfounded;’ for 196 cases, ‘victims declined to participate in justice system'” (Huffington Post). Many victims refuse to move ahead with charges because they are intimidated or threatened by their peers or commanding officers.

If anyone doubts that the military justice system is broken, take a look at this week’s headlines. On Sunday, Lt. Col. Jeff Krusinski, the Air Force official serving as the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Branch Chief, was arrested for groping a woman in a parking lot in Crystal City, Virgina ( This most recent scandal comes on the heels of other egregious charges against the US Air Force, including the recent case involving victim Kimberly Hanks. That case grabbed national headlines when Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin overturned the conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a pilot and inspector general of the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base in Italy who had been found guilty of sexual assault and sentenced by a jury (CBS).  Other recent Air Force scandals include the sexual assault of Air Force recruits by their instructors at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force Chief of Staff, testified that poor oversight of instructors at Lackland led to rampant misconduct. During his testimony, he admitted that “’weaknesses developed in each one of our institutional safeguards’ that led to a poisonous culture in which the instructors believed they could easily get away with repeatedly preying on young woman recruits” (NY Times). The Lackland case involved 32 instructors who were accused of abusing 52 female recruits (NY Times).

The bottom line is that sexual abuse in the military is increasing, not decreasing, despite the resources that are being invested in prevention and education. Over the past eight years, over 30 percent of military commanders who lost their positions were guilty of sexual misconduct. Among military officers at a rank of Lieutenant Colonel or above, 255 have lost command for personal conduct violations over the past eight years, including sexual misconduct (Yahoo News). When the problem is systemic and extends to those in power, change is nearly impossible. It is time that the military stopped policing itself. Yet until there are real consequences for committing sexual assault, and all perpetrators are held accountable, change is unlikely. In the wake of the newly released DoD report, President Obama reiterated his position of zero tolerance: “I don’t just want more speeches or awareness programs or training, but ultimately folks look the other way. If we find out somebody’s engaging in this, they’ve got to be held accountable – prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period” (NBC News). Time will tell if his words have any real impact.

Diane DeBella

As a writer, teacher, and speaker Diane has spent over twenty years examining women’s issues. She is the author of the collective memoir *I Am Subject: Sharing Our Truths to Reclaim Our Selves*, and editor of the anthology *I Am Subject Stories: Women Awakening*. As a long-time faculty member at the University of Colorado, she received the CU Women Who Make a Difference Award and the CU-LEAD Alliance Faculty Appreciation Award. Through her organization I Am Subject, Diane helps us understand how we—as women—are impacted by the society in which we live. By claiming ourselves as subjects of our own lives, we become empowered and also provide strong role models for other women and girls. In healing ourselves we help others—a beautiful way for women to create nurturing, supportive communities.

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