Strong response needed to military sex assaults

May 9, 2013 

This is a crisis of grave magnitude, and there’s no point in calling it anything else. Sexual assault, mostly involving men against women, has alarmingly increased in the United States military. A Pentagon-issued study found there were 26,000 assaults in fiscal year 2012 compared to 19,000 the year before. Only a fraction were reported, 3,374, compared to 3,192 the previous year.

That’s outrageous, but believable. The military has its chain of command, with high-ranking officers (or low-ranking officers, for that matter) given great power over others. A subordinate who had been subject to a sexual assault might be intimidated into keeping things quiet for fear of retribution. That’s ever more likely if there is an atmosphere, or even a suspicion of one, that an accusation might not be taken seriously or would be simply covered up.

And this study was released just two days after the Air Force officer in charge of programs to prevent sexual assault was arrested and charged with sexual battery. That episode does little to give such programs, or the military’s system of justice for that matter, much credibility.

No wonder, then, reports The New York Times, that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, turned Air Force Secretary Michael Donley over the coals in a hearing this week. She said that given the circumstances of the arrest, the military might not be capable of investigating and prosecuting cases involving sexual assault.

She may be right. The military’s structure, in which higher-ranking officers would likely rule on cases of alleged sexual assault, might not be conducive to absolute fairness. It would seem it would be hard to eliminate the suspicion that officers, for example, would take care of their own, particularly if the “judges” and the accused were all men.

Gillibrand plans to act soon, introducing legislation that might change the way such cases are handled, perhaps bringing in independent prosecutors. She may also move to eliminate the power of “convening authority” wherein a commanding officer can simply overturn a court martial ruling.

The most incriminating factor that justifies this kind of action is the low rate of reporting of such assaults. There could not possibly be a more definitive reason to make a radical change.

President Obama, rightly, endorses the idea of a crackdown. “I have no tolerance for this,” he said. “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.”

North Carolina is, of course, home to several military installations with tens of thousands of men and women in uniform, and with many thousands more retired military career people settled here. The state always has been proud of the military presence, and well-aware of the positives and negatives of military life. As the military has welcomed more women into the ranks, and thankfully into the ranks of officers, it’s apparent that sexual assaults have maddeningly increased.

The president’s intolerance thus is shared by many citizens of this state, as it should be. The military is much admired, and deservedly so. But its reputation is damaged by this most serious problem. Intervention by Congress appears to be the necessary way to address it.

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