Defense secretary worries sexual assault in military nearing a tipping point

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says that sexual assault allegations in the military are so alarming that they could hurt the Pentagon's ability to recruit and retain 'the good people we need.' Critics are pushing for reform.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, seen here at the Pentagon in Washington last week, has said he is 'outraged and disgusted' by the latest sexual assault allegations to hit the military.

Calls to change how the US military justice system prosecutes those accused of sexual assault grew increasingly robust as lawmakers vowed to create a minimum punishment for US troops convicted of the crime.

The calls come in the wake of revelations Monday that the US Air Force officer in charge of the service’s sexual assault prevention program had himself been arrested and charged with sexual assault.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he was “outraged and disgusted” by the allegations, and warned that the Pentagon “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 to recruit and retain the good people we need.” 

On Wednesday, Reps. Niki Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts and Mike Turner (R) of Ohio, who serve as co-chairs of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, proposed a law to require that a US service member “found guilty of an offense of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy, or an attempt to commit any of those offenses receive a punishment that includes, at a minimum, a dismissal or dishonorable discharge.”

The proposed legislation would also prevent US military commanders from overturning the guilty findings of military courts in cases of sexual assault. There have been two recent cases in which US officers convicted of sexual assault have had the verdicts overturned by their commanders.

In both of those instances “juries selected by [the] generals said they believed the victim. And in both of those instances, the general said, ‘No, no – we believe the member of the military. That is the crux of the problem here, because if a victim does not believe that the system is capable of believing her, there’s no point in risking your entire career,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday.

Of the victim of one dismissed sexual assault charge, Senator McCaskill remarked on “how difficult it was for her to encounter the accused who’d been convicted by a jury and have to salute him.”

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire introduced a bill to require a special victims counsel to all sexual assault victims within all branches of the military. Currently, the US Air Force has launched a pilot program that senior US military officials say has been “immensely helpful, particularly to the victims.”

Since January, 265 victims have been assigned special victims counsels in the Air Force. In the past, 30 percent of victims who had initially intended to prosecute their perpetrators for sexual assault decided not to continue the case “after they began the process of investigations, interrogations, questioning, etc.,” Gen. Mark Welsh, chief of staff of the Air Force, pointed out in the Senate hearing Tuesday. But of those 265 represented by special victims counsels, only two decided to drop the case, “which is a huge improvement,” he added.

At the same time, lawmakers questioned the background of Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, accused of the sexual assault over the weekend even as Mr. Hagel vowed to “improve the effectiveness of sexual assault prevention and response programs.”

“There is training that is required in squadron commander training before you take that role,” said General Welsh, who added that Colonel Krusinski was a sexual assault response coordinator. “So he’s clearly familiar with the program,” Welsh said, nothing that Krusinski spent the past 2-1/2 years working in personnel policy. “His record is very good.”

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