By Robin Abcarian
8:42 PM EDT, May 7, 2013
Maybe, in the end, we will thank Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinksi, head of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention Unit, who was arrested on suspicion of sexual battery early Sunday after a woman reported he drunkenly approached her in a parking lot and grabbed her breasts and buttocks.
When it comes to dealing with the rape and assault epidemic that plagues our armed forces, Krusinksi’s tawdry story puts the finest point on all you need to know about the military’s problem with saying one thing and doing another.
Or maybe we’ll give a hearty thanks to Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that the shockingly high number of military sexual assaults is partly due to the country’s “hook-up mentality” which starts in junior high and high school.
I doubt Welsh meant to sound like a Neanderthal. After all, he was testifying about how to reduce the extraordinarily high number of military sexual assaults, as quantified in a shocking new Pentagon report. But his comment sounded suspiciously like victim-blaming masquerading as sociology.
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, an advocate for reforming the military’s approach to sexual assault prevention and prosecution, was not in a forgiving mood: “Outrageous,” she declared.
“To begin to attribute sexual assault rates in the military to a hook-up culture in high school?” an incredulous Gillibrand told NBC. “It is beyond belief that those statements were just uttered. We’re talking about violent crimes, committed by aggressors, perpetrators who are often targeting victims specifically.
"This is a violent act. This is not a date gone badly.”
The Pentagon report, signed by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, estimated that 26,000 service members had suffered “unwanted sexual conduct” in 2012, up about 34% from an estimated 19,300 in 2010.
“There’s no question the military has a serious, embedded serial predator problem,” said filmmaker Kirby Dick, whose Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary “The Invisible War,” was a wake-up call about the problem that brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “women in combat.”
His film, available on Netflix, focused on the extraordinary, lasting trauma suffered by victims of military sexual assault, who are often penalized for reporting crimes. “The military justice system is really broken at this point in terms of prosecuting and incarcerating these serial predators,” Dick said.
The Pentagon, he added, has used his documentary as a training tool. He estimated that a quarter of a million military members had seen the film.
Walsh, whose branch has been plagued by some high-profile sex scandals, required his 164 wing commanders to see and discuss the film in November. (Since 2011, more than 30 instructors at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio have been charged in a pervasive sex scandal. And last year, at Aviano Air Base in Italy, a commander overturned the aggravated sexual assault conviction of a fellow fighter pilot with whom he had served in Iraq. In the ensuing uproar, Hagel last month proposed that Congress put an end to the quirk in the military code that allows such an abominable practice.)
“I have no tolerance for this,” President Obama said Tuesday at the White House, in response to a question about Krusinksi’s arrest and the overturned Aviano verdict.
“If we find out somebody is engaging in this stuff, they've got to be held accountable -- prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged,” he said. “Period.”
But perhaps more important, to the thousands of victims of military sexual assault who suffer in silence, he offered this message: “I want them to hear directly from their commander in chief that I've got their backs. I will support them.”
Many reform advocates say the only way the military can fix its dismal record on the issue is by removing responsibility for investigating and prosecuting sexual assaults from the chain of command.
A bipartisan group of representatives, including U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, the California Democrat, has proposed reforming the U.S. Military Code of Justice to create an independent office for handling sexual assault cases outside the chain of command. Gillibrand has said she will propose a similar bill in the Senate.
After years of military dithering -- after Tailhook, Lackland and Aviano -- removing sexual assault investigations from the chain of command is an idea whose time has come.
“Even if commanders want to make the right decision, the people who have been assaulted won’t trust that they will,” said Dick. “And if they don’t report, the perpetrator goes free to assault again and again.”
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