How can Chuck Hagel fix military sexual assault epidemic?

President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel have stressed to graduates of the US military academies that rampant rates of sexual assault could corrode the force.

Mike Groll/AP
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (l.) and Superintendent Lt. Gen. David Huntoon Jr. stand for the national anthem during a graduation and commissioning ceremony at the US Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., on Saturday.

On consecutive days, President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel have told the next generation of military leaders that sexual assault is threatening the dignity and effectiveness of the force.

Though the war in Afghanistan continues, the Obama administration has, in many ways, already begun to turn the Pentagon toward a new set of challenges. Mr. Obama's address to the National Defense University Thursday spoke to the strategic parts of that shift – from stricter rules for drone strikes to new rules for the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay.

But the president's speech the next day to graduates of the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., stressed that stamping out an epidemic of sexual assault within the military must also be a primary goal. Secretary Hagel made the same point Saturday in a speech to graduates at the US Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.

But what can be done?

There is ample evidence to suggest that no solution will be easy or quick. A survey released earlier this month suggests that 26,000 people in the military were sexually assaulted in the previous year – a rate of 70 a day. Moreover, only 3,400 incidents were reported, suggesting a widespread lack of confidence in the military justice system on the issue.

Due to a lack of research, the trend line is unclear. The current number is up from the previous year (19,000) but down from 2006 (34,000).

Meanwhile, recent weeks have brought a flood of troubling allegations. This month, two members of military sexual-assault prevention units – one for the Air Force and one at the Army's Fort Hood in Texas – have been accused of sexual assault. And last week, a sergeant at West Point was charged with secretly videotaping female cadets in the shower.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri has introduced a bill to ensure that “never again will a victim have to salute an assaulter," according to NBC News. It would require a member of the military who has been found guilty of sexual assault to be dismissed or dishonorably discharged. While it would also prohibit a commander from nullifying or changing a sexual-assault conviction, it would not remove sexual-assault cases from the chain of command entirely.

That has been a point of contention for critics, who note that commanders often reduce or eliminate punishments resulting from sexual-assault investigations. To address this, a competing bill by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York would create a separate procedure for dealing with sexual-assault cases.

But Pentagon officials strongly resist the idea of taking control out of the hands of commanders, saying such a move would undermine unit cohesiveness and discipline. Hagel, too, has said he is against removing sex-assault cases from the chain of command.

Yet experts say it is crucial to change the way the Pentagon looks at sexual assault. Currently, the military treats sexual assault as a women's issue, retired Maj. Gen. Robert Shadley tells The Washington Post. Instead, it should treat the charges as a "force protection issue." 

“This is not a women’s rights issue, it’s an abuse of power," says Shadley, who presided over the Army's Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland during a sex-assault scandal in the 1990s. "We should have the same person who’s worried about protecting soldiers from enemy attack in charge of protecting soldiers from sexual predators. Until you make prevention of sexual assault a part of everyday life of the organization, it’s going to be considered a secondary thing.”

His proposed solution is to put sexual-assault prevention in the hands of each unit's chief operations officer. At the moment, these efforts are handled by specialized units, which has the effect of marginalizing the issue, he says. "This has got to be an operational issue.”

Others suggest that the prohibition against women in combat also has a corrosive effect. For one, in an organization built on the premise of warfighting, those who are barred from serving in combat zones are seen as second-class citizens and lose a degree of respect.

"That reinforced the traditional notion [among men in uniform] that there are differences between men and women: 'Women are not our equals,' " David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland in College Park, tells USA Today. " 'They're not allowed to be 100 percent soldiers. They're not part of our culture.' "

But the ban on women in combat might also have another effect. Without being able to serve in combat, women in the military face a glass ceiling. Obama could appoint more women to Pentagon posts, but women's ability to rise through the ranks in the military itself is affected by the ban.

“Quite frankly, we need to have people like [Obama adviser] Valerie Jarrett and Michelle Obama in the room,” Ana Cruz, a Democratic strategist, told Politico. “You can’t have a bunch of men sitting around a table talking about this issue when it clearly goes to the heart of violating women’s rights.”

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