Advice to women in the military: Don’t walk to the latrines alone

I have a suggestion about how to help instantly reduce sexual assaults in the military. Round up those in charge of handling sexual-assault cases.

What fertile ground. In the space of two weeks this month, two of the top officers in charge of preventing sexual assaults were accused in sexual assaults. Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, the officer in charge of the Air Force program, was arrested in a Washington suburb after he grabbed a woman in a parking lot. An officer in the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention unit at Fort Hood in Texas, meanwhile, is under investigation for abusive sexual conduct.

Sexual violence in the military is so pervasive, even some of those who have been charged with rooting it out are themselves violent. The military just can’t seem to curb the epidemic on its own. It’s more important to pretend nothing has happened when a complaint is lodged; many are never relayed to military criminal authorities, while others are swept under the rug. It’s the victim’s fault — for upsetting camaraderie and esprit de corps. Get her (or him: The Pentagon estimates that 54 percent of victims are men) to be quiet or charge the complainer with conduct unbecoming an officer or insubordination.

It’s no wonder some women in uniform try not to drink too much — not alcohol, but anything — at night. As one told Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the most dangerous place on base is often the secluded path to the latrines, where many assaults take place.

Last year, the Pentagon received 3,374 reports of sexual assault, according to its Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. (The actual number of assaults is probably closer to 26,000, the office says.) Of those 3,374, almost 1,000 were deemed baseless or outside the military’s jurisdiction, and several hundred were dropped by commanders as unfounded or for other reasons.

It’s true, as the military is fond of saying, that the great majority of military officers are law-abiding. But when a fellow service member is accused, the law-abiding tend to side with the accused. Reporting a rape is never easy, but it’s much harder when the perpetrator is of higher rank than the victim (50 percent of the time) and when the perpetrator is in the victim’s chain of command (23 percent of the time). Join the military, where you may be more prone to sexual attack, and you don’t even get the protections, however flawed, you would get at your local police precinct, because the brass close ranks.

There have been attempts to fix pieces of the problem, such as the indignity of a recruit having to salute the man who attacked her while her complaint is being investigated. In 2011 the Pentagon instituted an expedited transfer policy — but there’s no deadline on providing a move, and it doesn’t track how long a move takes. Victims’ groups say more than 60 percent of victims face continued contact and retaliation from their attackers.

Meanwhile, members of Congress have dozens of reports that superiors are more interested in finding reasons to intimidate the victim than in helping her get out of the line of fire. In one case, a nurse couldn’t get out of her unit after being raped by a fellow officer. She even had to train with him. Her command found excuses not to honor her transfer request until Rep. Niki Tsongas intervened.

Even the big boss, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, couldn’t fix one problem: the ability of commanding officers to overturn jury verdicts with no explanation whatsoever. After a general overturned a sexual-assault conviction of an airman at Aviano Air Base in Italy, Hagel pledged that no such thing would ever happen again. He found out he didn’t have such authority.

Violence and cover-up are part of the military’s culture. If the numbers are right, there are 26,000 estimated assaults but only a minuscule fraction are prosecuted. That means there are a lot of dangerous predators at large.

Gillibrand introduced legislation last week that would essentially remove commanders from the legal process. If passed, complaints would have to go to a parallel system of military prosecutors outside the command structure. No more commanders overturning guilty verdicts.

The bill has 15 co-sponsors, but it may not be enough. True, victims are no longer so afraid to come forward, and top military officers acknowledge that sexual assault is an epidemic. But change won’t come easily. At a news conference last week, Sen. Susan Collins spoke about her support of Gillibrand’s bill. As she noted, her remarks were almost identical to those she’d given almost a decade earlier. Sadly, they were still topical.

This bill, though laudable, doesn’t do anything to reduce the violence itself — just the terrible injustice that happens afterward. Women still shouldn’t walk to the latrines alone.

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.

© 2013, Bloomberg News

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