OUR OPINION: 'Game changers' needed to stop military sex abuse
In the 1970s, no one would have listed the military as one of America's most respected institutions. But in an extraordinary turnaround, the Armed Services brought about a wholesale change. Performance improved; problems that had seemed intractab...
In the 1970s, no one would have listed the military as one of America's most respected institutions. But in an extraordinary turnaround, the Armed Services brought about a wholesale change. Performance improved; problems that had seemed intractable were solved.
And the 1990s saw American society look upon servicemembers with new respect.
Today, the military must combat a new erosion in public esteem. Again, a key problem seems intractable. Again, the bad headlines are coming like hammer blows and leaving the services bruised.
But again, decisive action can and must make the difference.
The problem is the issue of sexual abuse. "Intractable" is right: More than 20 years have passed since the Navy's Tailhook scandal brought the issue to light, but the situation with sexual abuse seems to be getting worse.
"The estimated number of military personnel victimized by sexual assault and related crimes has surged by about 35 percent over the past two years," according to the Washington Post.
The Pentagon "estimated that 26,000 personnel experienced 'unwanted sexual contact' last year, up from about 19,300 in 2010. ...
"The Pentagon recorded 3,374 sexual-assault reports last year, compared with 3,192 in 2011. In both years, fewer than one in 10 cases ended with a sex-assault conviction at court-martial. The vast majority resulted in minor, administrative punishments or were dismissed altogether, the Pentagon study found."
If the 26,000 figure is accurate, that's 70 incidents a day or three an hour.
The Air Force has had more than its share. A sex-abuse scandal rocked the Air Force Academy in 2003. More recently, some 59 cases of sexual assault of recruits by drill instructors at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas have been uncovered.
And just this week, the Air Force's chief of sexual-assault prevention was arrested and charged with sexual battery.
As Penn State University and the Catholic Church's experiences have shown, sex scandals can level the public's respect for even beloved institutions. The Armed Forces are vulnerable in the same way, especially as each new episode reinforces the sense that not enough is being done.
It's time for game changers.
• Two New York congresswomen -- Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Jackie Speier -- want the reporting and prosecuting of sexual abuse to be taken out of the chain of command. Rather than depending on their commanders to take action, victims need "a separate office within the military that evaluates whether or not there's evidence to move forward and prosecute the case," as Speier describes.
The Washington Post's editorial board supports the move. Defense Department officials "are unwilling to consider taking military justice out of the chain of command because of a fear that it will erode order and discipline," a Post editorial declared.
"Yet America's allied modern militaries -- notably Britain, Canada, Israel and Australia -- operate systems in which prosecuting authorities make decisions about crimes."
• Monica Medina, an Army veteran and former assistant secretary of defense, has another idea: Discharge offenders. Random drug testing plus showing users the door all but ended the illegal drug use that had hurt the 1970s military. Sexual abuse deserves the same response.
"In the private sector, these people would be fired for abusive behavior," Medina wrote in a Washington Post column.
"The military should be no different."
• Another idea from Medina: Take a harder line on alcohol abuse. "Every recent sexual assault scandal, including the arrest just days ago of the lieutenant colonel who heads the Air Force's unit on sexual-assault prevention -- on charges of sexual battery -- has involved alcohol abuse," she notes.
But "the military's attitude toward these 'bad boy' behaviors is the true 'don't ask, don't tell' issue among the ranks.... Benefits of such a change would likely include fewer auto accidents involving soldiers and fewer suicide attempts, as well as a decrease in sexual assaults."
In the 1970s, race riots flared up on Army bases; by the 1990s, the military was the most successfully integrated institution in American life. The services have dealt with deep-set and challenging aspects of interpersonal relations before. Now, they must do so again.