Transforming the military's entrenched culture of sexual violence will require new approaches and a much stronger effort than what the Pentagon has done so far.
That is the depressing truth of a Defense Department study released Tuesday estimating that about 26,000 people in the military were sexually assaulted in the 2012 fiscal year, up from about 19,000 in the same period a year before.
Those who thought that the crisis could not get any worse have been proved wrong.
As in other years, only a small fraction of assaults were reported -- 3,374 in 2012 compared with 3,192 in 2011. The study, based on anonymous surveys, suggests that the great majority of sexual assault victims do not report the attacks for fear of retribution or lack of faith that the military will prosecute these crimes.
Just two days before the report's release, the officer in charge of sexual assault prevention programs for the Air Force, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, was arrested in Arlington County, Va., and charged with sexual battery, compounding the sense that the military is incapable of addressing this crisis.
"This arrest speaks volumes about the status and effectiveness of the department's efforts to address the plague of sexual assaults in the military," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on Tuesday in referring to the Defense Department.
Responding to Krusinski's arrest on battery charges in the attack of a woman in a parking lot Sunday, Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat and former prosecutor, expressed skepticism that "somebody could be accused of that behavior with a complete stranger and not have anything in his file."
She is holding up the nomination of Lt. Gen. Susan Helms to be vice commander of the Air Force's Space Command while seeking more information about Helms' decision to overturn a jury conviction in a sexual assault case last year.
The new Pentagon report and Krusinski's arrest have shown the Air Force's assault prevention efforts to be an absurd joke. Whatever steps taken in the past year to reduce rampant assault are plainly inadequate.
The issue is what is to be done now. While no single program can provide a cure-all, changes like offering all assault victims support in the form of a special victims' counsel -- as Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., have proposed -- make sense.
The most promising proposal comes from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. She plans to introduce legislation next week that fixes a critical flaw in the military's handling of assault cases. The measure would replace the current system of adjudicating sexual assault by taking the cases outside a victim's chain of command. It would end the power of senior officers with no legal training but lots of conflicts of interest to decide whether courts-martial can be brought against subordinates and to toss out a jury verdict once it is rendered.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel favors eliminating the power of senior officers to overturn jury findings in the most serious cases, but, so far, he has not endorsed the Gillibrand bill, which would move the authority both to investigate and prosecute offenses to impartial military prosecutors. His reluctance is troubling. It is his job to fix the situation. Halfway reform won't do.
Asked about the assault numbers Tuesday, President Barack Obama said military personnel who engage in assaults are "betraying the uniform they're wearing." He said he told Hagel that "we have to exponentially step up our game to go at this thing hard." That is the right message, but actually changing the system will require presidential leadership.
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