Sen. Murray working to curb sexual assaults in military

The Associated PressMay 8, 2013 

WASHINGTON — Sexual assaults in the military are a growing epidemic across the services, and thousands of victims are still unwilling to come forward, despite a slew of new oversight and assistance programs, according to Pentagon documents.

Troubling new numbers estimate that up to 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, up from the 19,000 estimated assaults in 2011, according to new survey results. They were released against a backdrop of scandals including an ongoing investigation into more than 30 Air Force instructors for assaults on trainees at a Texas base.

According to Pentagon documents, the key conclusion of the new report is that “sexual assault is a persistent problem in the military and remains vastly underreported.”

The report comes just days after the Air Force’s head of sexual assault prevention was arrested on charges of groping a woman in a suburban Virginia parking lot. And it follows a heated debate concerning whether commanders should be stripped of the authority to overturn military jury verdicts, such as one officer did in a recent sexual assault conviction.

President Barack Obama said Tuesday he has no tolerance for the problem, and he said he talked to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel about it. Obama said that any military member found guilty of sexual assault should be held accountable, prosecuted and fired.

“I don’t want just more speeches or awareness programs or training, or ultimately folks look the other way,” the president said. “We’re going to have to not just step up our game, we have to exponentially step up our game to go after this hard.”

Across Capitol Hill, lawmakers demanded the Pentagon take more aggressive steps to address the growing problem, and they announced renewed efforts to pass legislation to battle it.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said service members already sacrifice much when they wear the uniform; it’s “unconscionable” that some have sacrificed their dignity through unwanted sexual contact.

“Not only are we subjecting our men and women to this disgusting epidemic, but we’re also failing to provide the victims with any meaningful support system once they have fallen victim to these attacks,” she said.

Murray and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., introduced legislation Tuesday that would:

 • Provide victims with a special military lawyer who would assist them throughout the process.

 • Prohibit sexual contact between instructors and trainees during and within 30 days of completion of basic training or its equivalent.

 • Ensure that sexual assault response coordinators are available to help members of the National Guard and Reserve.

Other members of Congress are putting together legislation to essentially strip military officers of the authority to overturn convictions for serious offenses such as sexual assault. The measure stems from congressional outrage over an Air Force officer’s decision to reverse a jury verdict in a sexual assault case.

This week’s sexual battery arrest of Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, who headed the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response unit, provided a rallying point for lawmakers, who held it up Tuesday as an example of the Pentagon’s failure to make progress despite the increased effort.

A new Pentagon report shows that the number of sexual assaults actually reported by members of the military rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012. But a survey of personnel who were not required to reveal their identities showed the number of service members actually assaulted could be as many as 26,000, though they never reported the incidents, officials said Tuesday.

The report says that of the 1.4 million active duty personnel, 6.1 percent of women, or 12,100, say they experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2012, a sharp increase over the 8,600 who said that in 2010. For men, the number increased from 10,700 to 13,900. A majority of the offenders were military members or Defense Department civilians or contractors, the report said.

The statistics highlight the dismal results military leaders have achieved in their drive to change the culture within the ranks, even as the services redoubled efforts to launch new programs to assist victims, encourage reporting and increase commanders’ vigilance.

Hagel ordered a series of steps and reviews to increase officers’ accountability for what happens under their commands, according to documents obtained by the AP.

He ordered military leaders to develop a way to assess commanders and hold them accountable for creating a climate “of dignity and respect.” He has given commanders until July 1 to visually inspect workspaces to make sure they are free of degrading materials, and military leaders have until Nov. 1 to recommend ways to assess officers and hold them accountable for their command climates.

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