From left: Anu Bhagwati, executive director and co-founder of the Service Women's Action Network, BriGette McCoy, former specialist in the U.S. Army, Rebekah Havrilla, former sergeant in the U.S. Army, and Brian Lewis, former petty officer 3rd class in the U.S. Navy, testify about being sexually assaulted while in the military during a Senate hearing on March 13.
(Photo: Win McNamee, Getty Images)
by Gregg Zoroya and Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY
- An estimated 26,000 servicemembers were victims last year
- Congress is working to address chronic issue
- Survey finds only about one in 10 victims stepped forward to complain in 2012
WASHINGTON -- A report showing that sexual assaults in the military jumped by more than one-third since 2010 led Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday to order the armed services to take immediate steps to curb the problem among troops.
Sexual assault, Hagel said, strikes at the core of the military.
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"This department may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime and the perception that there is tolerance of it could very well undermine our ability to effectively carry out the mission and to recruit and retain the good people we need," Hagel said.
Pentagon estimates of how many troops are sexually assaulted show the numbers increased by 35% since 2010, from 19,300 service members believed to be victims that year to 26,000 in 2012, according to a Defense Department survey released Tuesday.
The initiatives Hagel ordered include:
- Holding commanders accountable for creating a climate in which sexual assault is prevented and victims are properly taken care of.
- Reducing the stigma for victims of reporting sexual assault.
- Enhancing sexual abuse prevention training and education programs for trainers and recruits.
President Obama addressed the issue Tuesday at a news conference, saying that he's stressing accountability among commanders and their charges. He encouraged victims to report the crimes, adding that as commander-in-chief, "I've got their backs."
"We find out somebody's engaging in this stuff, they've got to be held accountable," Obama said. "Prosecuted, stripped out of their positions, court martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period. It's not acceptable."
The report's findings, which the Pentagon acknowledges show that "sexual assault is a persistent problem and there is more work to be done," comes at a time when the focus on this abuse within the ranks is growing in intensity. The Air Force reported Monday that its chief sexual assault prevention officer was arrested over the weekend for allegedly groping a woman.
Meanwhile in Congress, legislators are drawing up bills that would take the decision for prosecuting these cases out of the hands of commanding officers and allow military lawyers to decide -- a move that military leaders say would hurt their ability to maintain order and discipline. Legislators, however, say that under the current system victims decline to step forward out of concern that their complaints will not be taken seriously.
Twice in recent months, three-star Air Force generals have come under fire for throwing out sexual assault convictions for lower-ranking officers.
According to the Pentagon survey, only about one in 10 people who were sexually abused stepped forward to complain last year. That amounted to 3,374 cases in 2012, of which only about 3,000 chose to press charges. "Far fewer victims report sexual assault that are estimated to experience it on an annual basis," says a written summary of the Pentagon findings.
The survey revealed that while the rate of men suffering sexual abuse has remained steady since 2010, the rate of female victims increased from about one in 23 to one in 16 last year.
Also Tuesday, Air Force officials addressed the latest sex scandal to hit the service: the arrest of the officer who led its Sexual Assault Prevention and Response branch on sexual battery charges.
Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that he was "appalled at the deeply troubling allegations" against Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski. Krusinski was arrested early Sunday morning in Arlington, Va., not far from the Pentagon, after he allegedly grabbed the breasts and buttocks of a woman he did not know. He was drunk at the time, according to the police report.
Krusinski will be arraigned Thursday, Welsh said. The Air Force has asked to take over the case from Arlington County prosecutors, Welsh said.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, asked Welsh why Krusinski was placed in his post. "His record is very good," Welsh said, referring to Krusinski's prior service
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., hammered Air Force Secretary Michael Donley on the case.
"If the man in charge for the Air Force in preventing sexual assault is being alleged to have committed a sexual assault this weekend, obviously there's a failing in training and understanding of what sexual assault is and how corrosive and damaging it is to good order and discipline and how it is undermining the credibility of the greatest military force in the world," Gillibrand said. "This is not good enough."
Contributing: David Jackson