The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

May 9, 2013

Why does sexual assault in the military persist

By Bonnie Erbe
guest columnist

— Raise your hand if you, like me, have a hard time understanding why the military seems powerless to end sexual assault within its ranks.

This week, its efforts to obliterate sexual assaults on female personnel reached an unbelievable nadir. The Air Force officer appointed to lead his branch’s Sexual Assault and Prevention and Response unit was charged with sexual battery. Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski allegedly groped a woman in a parking lot (the majority of assaults are against women, though some men are persecuted, too). Is there no way to screen for this type of behavior?

One way might be to appoint women to run such units. Either Air Force brass didn’t have the common sense to make this seemingly logical move, or didn’t believe they had a woman on hand who could carry out the job. Instead they created a disastrous situation.

How uncanny that in the same week as allegations against Krusinski arose (and, if true, one hopes will bring about the end of his service career), the Pentagon also released a survey showing that the number of reported sexual assaults in the military grew by 35 percent. They rose from 19,300 in 2010 to 26,000 last year.

Sexual assault is hardly a new problem in the services, but Americans have short memories. So let me remind you that the infamous Tailhook scandal took place almost 22 years ago. Back in 1991, at that annual gathering of Navy aviators, 26 women reported being sexually assaulted by mostly drunken servicemen.

The Tailhook scandal wasn’t the modern military’s first brush with sexual harassment and assault. A 2002 report on sexual harassment of women in the military, prepared for the National Women’s Law Center, indicates it has been disturbingly common:

n In the Navy, 60 percent of women had been sexually harassed, a 1980 study found. That figure rose to 84 percent in a 1983 study of Navy women.

n Over half of the 1,400 women surveyed for the 1987 Study Group on the Progress of Women in the Navy had been sexually harassed while in the service.

n A 1990 study of more than 20,000 military personnel conducted by the Defense Manpower Data Center found that nearly two out of every three women were sexually harassed in the previous year. While the typical victim was an enlisted woman, 12 percent were officers.

How much have attitudes changed? Judge for yourself: Two three-star Air Force generals recently had the nerve to throw out sexual assault convictions for lower-ranking officers.

So, you may understand why I’m sick of hearing from Pentagon brass about their “outrage and disgust” over this problem, as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel opined this week after Krusinski’s arrest. Or that they are taking this problem seriously, or starting a zero-tolerance policy against sexual assault or anything of that ilk. I’ve seen that movie too many times to count.

Some members of Congress have tired of waiting for the Pentagon to clean up after itself. They are pressing for legislation that would give military lawyers the power to decide whether to prosecute sexual assaults. They would take that power away from commanding officers. The current system is said to depress the number of report of assaults, as victims fear their claims won’t be fairly heard.

These bills would be a good start. But even better would be to promote women (and men) who’ve been sexually assaulted into positions where they decide whether to prosecute new complaints. And they should be given extraordinary powers over sentences and discharges. That would put palpable fear into the minds of would-be transgressors.

Something radical must be done to eradicate the apparently entrenched view that sexual assault is not viewed as a serious crime within the military and that servicewomen (and men) are easy pickings.

— Bonnie Erbe, host of PBS’ “To the Contrary,” writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail bonnie.scrippshoward@ gmail.com.

Scripps Howard News Service