Michael McClendon: Is West Point Safe From the Military Sex Crime Epidemic?

In spite of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's impassioned commencement speech regarding sexual assault in the military at West Point last week, the historic academy is in the midst of a sexual assault issue of its own, involving one of its own staff members. Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael McClendon will soon face charges for allegedly videotaping female cadets while they showered without their consent. That this prestigious military academy has a possible violator in its employ shows a whole new side of the epidemic of military sexual abuse and invasion of privacy — are cadets who worked extremely hard to get into the academy as unsafe as their counterparts stationed around the world?

McClendon was formally charged under four articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice on May 14, including dereliction of duty, mistreatment, entering a women's bathroom without notice, and taking and possessing inappropriate photos and videos. Ironically, his academy position as a tactical noncommissioned officer requires him to be "responsible for the health, welfare and discipline" of 125 cadets, and he was also expected to "assist each cadet in balancing and integrating the requirements of physical, military, academic and moral-ethical programs."

Maybe this incident is not as absurd as the several recent "sexual assault prevention" officers being arrested for sex-related crimes, but this still comes close.

"I think this behavior absolutely damages the reputation of West Point," said Anu Bhagwati, executive director for Service Women's Action Network, an advocacy group made up of women veterans. "I mean, West Point is considered the elite academy."

Gen. John Campbell, the vice chief of staff of the Army, also weighed in on McClendon's charges, saying, "The Army is committed to ensuring the safety and welfare of our cadets at the Military Academy at West Point, as well as all soldiers throughout our Army. Once notified of the violation, a full investigation was launched followed by swift action to correct the problem."

Defense Secretary Hagel was briefed on the incident prior to his May 25 commencement address, with Pentagon officials describing him as "concerned and disturbed" by the allegations against McClendon. He also signed an order requiring the military to perform a "review of credentials and qualifications of current-serving recruiters, sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates," including "refresher training" for the programs' 25,000 personnel.

According to a recent Pentagon report, there were 3,374 reports of sexual assault involving service members last year. However, the estimated number of assaults, including unreported cases, could be as high as 26,000: 13,100 men and 12,900 women.

An Army spokesman said that "providing the full range of support to those whose privacy was violated" is the Army's primary commitment at this point, as well as "keeping them updated on the case." He added that "the Army will ensure the military justice system works through to its proper conclusion."

While the rhetoric is there, it still stands to mention that only 2.5% of all military sexual assault cases end with the rapist being punished. Reason dictates that certain high-ranking officials have a hand in covering up these assaults, and it is only when the official themselves — like the aforementioned "sexual assault prevention" officers — faces charges that it becomes noteworthy.

Hopefully justice will be served in this case, and the military officials who denounce sexual assault so publicly will actually take a stand against it. West Point is the last place one might expect these atrocities to occur, but with sexual assault in the military on the rise, one may not be as surprised when even employees at prestigious military academies start to falter.

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Christine Salek

Christine is a writer and perpetual student living in Des Moines, Iowa. Her writing can also be found on Medium, the Gonzaga Bulletin, and ResearchGate.

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