The Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Rape in U.S. military: Conduct unbecoming

If the military were truly serious about stemming the plague of sexual assaults in the ranks, the number of incidents would drop dramatically. Instead, rapes and assaults have increased.

If the officers in charge were deeply committed to protecting women serving their country, they wouldn’t issue memos that, in effect, tell those women who have been violated to shut up and get over it.

If servicemen who rape their fellow soldiers had any reason to fear punishment, they wouldn’t do it. But when women are muzzled, and the few convictions are overturned, then what’s a guy got to worry about?

And if Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinksi really believed that the rules applied to him, he would not have allegedly grabbed a woman’s breasts and rear end in an Arlington County, Va., parking lot. She was a complete stranger. He is the officer in charge of the Air Force’s sexual-assault prevention program. He was arrested.

Despite military officials’ protests that sexual assault won’t be tolerated, a Department of Defense study, released, ironically, just after Mr. Krusinski’s arrest, says the message just isn’t getting through. Indeed, the number of reported rapes grew to 3,374 last year from 3,192 in 2011. Those numbers only scratch the surface.

The study anonymously polled service members and found that 26,000 women and men said they had “unwanted sexual contact” in 2012. But only a fraction of them had the courage to report it to superiors. Why take the chance of undergoing a second, humiliating violation, this time handed out by the organization that is supposed to seek the truth and punish offenders found guilty?

There remains a reprehensible and dangerous deafness to sexual assault in the military. Twenty-two years after the Tailhook scandal, after all the sordid stories at military academies — apparently training tomorrow’s leaders in the art of war and sexual boorishness — women are still expected to tolerate being raped by their colleagues, say nothing and then continue to serve beside their attackers. That’s a disgrace. Military organizations’ most effective tools are supposed to be discipline and integrity.

President Obama sounded appropriately outraged at the news of Mr. Krusinski’s arrest and the Defense Department report. Talk is cheap. He needs to push his military leaders to act. Women in the Senate already are taking the lead.

Sen. Claire McCaskill has put the brakes on the nomination of Lt. Gen. Susan Helms for vice commander of the Air Force Space Command. Sen. McCaskill first wants a clear explanation as to why Lt. Gen. Helms last year overturned a jury conviction in a sexual-assault case. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Patty Murray and Kelly Ayotte propose a special victim’s counsel.

Ms. Gillibrand also proposes removing the investigation and prosecution of a sexual assault case from the victim’s chain of command, which clearly has led to an insular and secretive process that too often gives transgressors a pass. That authority would rest instead with impartial military prosecutors. In addition, Ms. Gillibrand’s bill would eliminate the ability of a senior officer to toss out a jury’s guilty verdict.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, however, is balking at what could be a major step forward in giving victims’ justice and punishing the guilty. Sexual assault is as much a crime in the military as it is in civilian society. Mr. Hagel must set the tone for zero tolerance and swift consequences. Discipline and integrity must rule.

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