In the wake of a review ordered by the Defense secretary to help bring down rates of sexual assault, the Army is firing hundreds of soldiers from their jobs in “positions of trust.” This move has advocacy organizations alternately hailing the removals as an important step in ongoing efforts to bring down sexual assault rates, and unleashing a new string of critiques against the Pentagon.
Pressure to get a handle on rising reports of sexual assault has been increasing as the Senate schedules a vote on a bill by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York, which would take away from commanders the final say on whether prosecution of a sexual assault case proceeds. Most senior Pentagon officials strongly oppose such a move.
Hours into a congressional hearing Wednesday on the ties among sexual assault, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide, USA Today came out with the news about the firings: After reviewing the records of 20,000 troops, the Army was going to remove 588 sexual assault counselors, as well as recruiters and drill sergeants, because of convictions in their past – including for child abuse, stalking, drug use, drunken driving, or even sexual assault.
Currently, 79 soldiers are waiting to be given their walking papers from the Army altogether, according to an Army spokesman. “However, others could face further actions from their commands,” adds Col. David Patterson, chief of Army Public Affairs.
News of the move was met with praise from some advocacy organizations. “I think the fact that the Army is proactively identifying people to remove from positions of trust is a strong step in working to combat military sexual assault,” says Kate O’Gorman, political director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “It’s a really welcome step.”
Other groups, however, expressed concern that the number of soldiers being removed is far higher than the figure that the Army reported last August.
“The Army disqualified nearly 600 soldiers from positions of trust – ten times the amount initially reported,” said Greg Jacob, a former Marine and now policy director of the Service Women’s Action Network, in a statement.
Army officials respond that the figures from August – at that time 50 soldiers had been removed from their jobs – were released before the review was complete.
Still, “This announcement raises serious questions regarding the military’s screening process,” Mr. Jacob added. “Now, we have to wonder, especially with regard to the other branches, how many more of these bad apples remain in these positions?”
Other branches have been conducting reviews of personnel.
To date, Air Force officials have reviewed approximately 2,500 sexual assault response coordinators and military victims’ advocates “and found two that we disqualified for information in their background,” says Lt. Col. Jill Whitesell, an Air Force spokeswoman.
“It is unlikely that this problem is unique to the Army,” says Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy organization. “The other services should also widen their review.”