When Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey declares a “crisis,” Washington pricks up its ears. The increase in sexual assault within the U.S. military, over 35% since 2010, has prompted President Obama and General Dempsey to tackle the issue. In just two weeks, two servicemen in charge of preventing sexual misconduct have been charged with this same criminal behavior. In particular, a first class Fort Hood sargeant and member of the sexual-assault response office has been accused of “pandering, abusive sexual contact, assault and maltreatment of subordinates,” as described by NPR’s Larry Abramson. This event happened less than a week after Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, 41, an Air Force officer in the sexual-assault prevention and response branch, was charged with sexual battery.
The most critical issue is not just the assaults themselves but how superior officers handle them. Many sexual-assault cases in the military are in fact overturned, with the convicted persons released and even reinstated into previous positions.
Recently, Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin faced heat as he threw out the aggravated sexual assault verdict of fighter pilot Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, 44. Wilkerson's conviction resulted in a year of jail time, forfeiture of pay, and discharge. However, Lt. Franklin not only dismissed the penalties but also reinstated Wilkerson into the Air Force.
With many accusations geared particularly towards personnel in supervisory positions, this lack of convictions facilitates a military culture shrouded in fear and uncertainty for male and female members alike.
According to the Pentagon’s research, military women face a higher risk of being raped multiple times, with sexual assault rates hovering around one in three as opposed to one in six in civilian life. Predators tend to seek out women they believe will not report them, or who seek refuge in the military from abusive families. Arguably, based on the physically close quarters and the physical constraints of military positions, tensions seem to run higher in the military versus other professions.
Senator Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) takes a culture-centered approach with recently proposed bill. Out of an estimated 26,000 assaults a year, only about 3,000 are reported, and only a handful of those go to trial and receive convictions that stick. Gillibrand's bill attempts to circumvent conflicts of interest in the military chain of command to increase reported assaults.
By moving the decisions of criminal trials out of the chain of command and into a dedicated legal system, Senator Gillibrand hopes to aid women who are worried about being marginalized by their superiors, blamed for their assault, or retaliated against by their fellow troops. Gillibrand has adamantly argued that setting aside or changing guilty verdicts should no longer be allowed, raising the question of how both the judicial and military system will have to face appeals.
Ultimately, the current culture surrounding sexual assault is not open to discussion in civilian life, much less in military life. Perhaps we may yet see the fruits of Senator Gillibrand’s efforts for military justice over the next generation.