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Analysis: Why the military hasn't stopped sexual abuse

May. 15, 2013 - 03:12PM   |  
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A female soldier is groped inside a barracks, another in a base supply room, a third on a shooting range.

A sailor is molested by her defensive-tactics instructor; a female Marine lance corporal is raped by a gunnery sergeant who’s also a recruiter.

Two male soldiers, in separate hazing incidents, are wrestled to the ground by fellow GIs and sodomized with a broom handle or plastic bottle.

The cases last year are among thousands detailed in a searing 1,500-page Pentagon report on pervasive sexual abuse in the U.S military released last week. It estimates a rate of about 500 men and women assaulted each week of 2012.

The scandal is unfolding rapidly in an embarrassingly public manner, each new chapter confirming the report’s finding that the abusive culture is endemic. Tuesday night, the Army revealed that an unnamed sergeant responsible for sexual assault prevention at Fort Hood, Texas, is under investigation for allegedly forcinganother soldier into prostitution and assaulting two others.

He is the second sexual assault prevention officer in two weeks linked to abuse. Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, the chief sexual assault prevention officer for the Air Force, was arrested May 5 after allegedly groping a woman in an Arlington, Va., parking lot.

The pace of the assaults outlined in the Pentagon report — three an hour in 2012 — constitute a crisis of command that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says could undermine the very effectiveness of this country’s voluntary military.

Yet despite a greater awareness among the Pentagon’s brass, as well as mandatory annual training to snuff out sexual abuse and usher in an era of openness in the military, the problem has only gotten worse.

USA Today interviewed lawmakers, social scientists and people who have worked on the sexual assault issue inside the military to determine why the Pentagon hasn’t been able to stem this predatory tide. All pointed to two factors — one a new plague, the other as old as the military itself — standing in the way:

* A military culture more coarse toward women in the ranks, the result of stress from a decade of war and the status of females as second-class warriors barred from combat roles. Male recruits are drawn from a society where violence and objectification of women are staple elements of films and video games.

* A military justice system with origins dating to the Revolutionary War that gives commanders of accused troops ultimate power over legal proceedings.

A starting point, experts say, might be the culture producing our soldiers.

“There’s a coarsening of American life which is altogether too evident,” says James Burk, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University who specializes in the military, referring to the proliferation of violence toward women in films and video games. “I’m sure the recruits are bringing that in with them,” he says.

Army Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, head of the Pentagon’s sexual assault prevention office, conceded in an interview with USA Today this week that deep-rooted cultural flaws in the American military must be eradicated, including disrespect for women in uniform.

“What we’re after is a climate where sexist behavior, sexual harassment and sexual assault — that none of those are tolerated or condoned or ignored,” Patton says.

Deep within the massive, two-volume Pentagon study is evidence that a male-dominated culture fosters sexual abuse.

More female soldiers, sailors and Marines complain of hearing sexual jokes or stories; being the target of unwanted sexual advances; being treated badly when they refuse sex; or being treated in a sexist fashion on the job.

Last week, commanders said they are investigating whether Marines created a Facebook page portraying female Marines in vulgar and degrading photographs and comments. The site has been taken down.

A military under stress

Those who study the military say the coarsening of attitudes and the rise in sexual assaults should come as no surprise. David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland, says America’s volunteer force has been under enormous strain after fighting two wars and enduring back-to-back deployments that lead to pathologies ranging from suicide to alcohol abuse and mental illness.

Although women have served in uniform for decades — and have fought and died in Iraq and Afghanistan — they have always been deemed lesser war-fighters, barred by federal law from serving in combat roles, social scientists say.

“That reinforced the traditional notion (among men in uniform) that there are differences between men and women: ‘Women are not our equals,’” Segal says. “‘They’re not allowed to be 100 percent soldiers. They’re not part of our culture.’”

When the military was desegregated in 1948 and gay troops were allowed to serve openly in 2010, cultural attitudes had to be changed. In both cases, black troops and gay men were considered the legal equals of heterosexual, white males as combat troops.

The same has never been true for women. Though they constitute 15 percent of the military, they have always been legally relegated by Congress to non-combat roles. Only recently has the Pentagon begun to explore lifting that legal restriction.

“Some men still think ... women are inferior,” says Bob Shadley, a retired Army major general who has published a book on sexual scandals he uncovered at Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in the 1990s. “They don’t fit in the male macho war-fighter image.”

A tradition two centuries old

American military justice evolved during the past century to closely resemble proceedings in a federal courtroom, with prosecution, penitentiary standards, witness testimony and trial by jury before a trained judge. There is one glaring exception.

The decision on whether charges should be brought, who sits on the jury and whether a conviction or punishment can stand is controlled by a high-ranking officer who is the defendant’s superior. The officer is neither a lawyer nor a judge, although he or she receives written advice from a military attorney.

The arrangement is a core principle for maintaining order within a fighting unit. It is an age-old tradition the United States inherited from the British military when the nation was formed in the 18th century, says Gary Solis, former military lawyer or judge advocate in the Marine Corps and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

Britain, Canada and other countries have moved away from this principle of commanding officer’s authority, but it lives on in American military’s Uniform Code of Military Justice created by Congress.

That issue undercuts military fairness in prosecuting sexual assaults, some lawmakers say.

“The military has proven that it is incapable of doing the job,” says Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who decries the Pentagon’s prosecution of sex offenders as “abysmal.” She is drafting laws aimed at removing the responsibility of these cases from unit commanders.

Those commanders reduce as many as a third of sexual abuse punishments, according to estimates provided to Speier’s office.

“It’s a tool the commander has to help ensure discipline and order and obedience to authority,” says Victor Hansen, professor of criminal law at New England Law Boston and a former Army judge advocate. “All those things that are essential to completing a military mission.”

Commanders have several ways of handling criminal charges:

* Among 1,714 servicemembers charged with sexual assault in 2012, cases against 509 defendants fell apart because victims declined to participate, evidence was lacking or the statute of limitations had run out, according to the Pentagon report.

* Commanders dismissed charges against 81 defendants. They prosecuted 244 troops for crimes other than sexual assault. For 286 defendants, commanders decided on lesser, non-judicial or administrative proceedings.

* A total of 594 faced a court-martial for sexual assault. For 302 whose trials ended last year, 238 servicemembers — or 14 percent of those originally facing charges — were convicted of sex crimes, according to the report.

Commanders then can set aside convictions. Two Air Force three-star generals recently threw out jury convictions for sexual assault, in one instance concluding that the defendant could not possibly be guilty because he was “a doting father and husband.”

“A commander’s authority is not entirely misplaced,” Solis says. “But it can be abused, and I think we’ve seen some cases.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the personnel panel for the Armed Services Committee, is drafting legislation similar to Speier’s House bill to remove these cases from the defendant’s chain-of-command. They would be handled by military judges.

“We have the greatest military in the world,” Gillibrand says. “And we ask everything of them. We ask them to even die for their country. We should not be asking them to be subject to sexual assault and rape.

“I strongly believe that if we allow them to report outside the chain of command, allow that decision-making to be made by a prosecutor, not the commanding officer, you will see justice done more often,” she says.

'It's a trauma'

Sarah Bonner awoke in pain in the soldier’s apartment. Her nose was bleeding, her body covered in bruises, and she was naked, clothing strewn around the room. The man who had sexually assaulted her was asleep on the other side of the room.

She would never forget the terror that swept over her just then, Bonner says. “My worst nightmare (had) come true,” the former airman recalls.

She quickly, quietly got dressed, found her way home and called a chaplain.

Two weeks into her deployment to Germany in 2005, Bonner had met the Army military police officer for drinks the night before, then passed out in the taxi on the way home. She says she believes she was drugged.

Bonner was in the minority of those sexually assaulted in the military. Last year, only about one in 10 female victims reported the crime.

Bonner says that after the assault in 2005, her assailant was disciplined for beating her and shipped back to the USA. She was told to apply heavy makeup to cover the bruises and return to work.

“I’m glad I served,” says Bonner, 32, who has since left the Air Force and is attending college. “I’m proud of my service. But there’s that thing there. It’s a trauma.”

If Pentagon estimates are correct, more than 20,000 troops declined to report what happened to them last year. About half the women who decided not to say anything did so because they feared everyone would find out. Nearly half thought they would be labeled a “troublemaker.”

Forty-three percent said they did not expect to be believed, according to the survey. At least one in five who did seek prosecution said if they had it to do over again, they would keep silent.

The Marine Corps had the biggest problem — an average of four women sexually abused each day in 2012. The percentage of female Marines alleging sexual assault last year was 10.1 percent up from 6.6 percent in 2010.

Confidentialitiy is elusive

Former Army Sgt. Lucretia Gordon did double duty as a victim advocate at Fort Drum, N.Y. Each service trains members on working confidentially with victims and assisting them through the aftermath of a sexual assault.

Gordon, who left the Army in 2008, remembers one female soldier she assisted in 2006. The young woman said a soldier in her unit sexually assaulted her after they had been drinking alcohol. By the next day at the battalion picnic, word had spread, and everyone knew about it. The accused soldier was boasting.

The young woman, humiliated by the attention and overwhelmed by the sense that she had somehow been responsible, eventually dropped the charges, Gordon says.

Gordon, who assisted nearly a dozen victims, including some in the Iraq war zone during deployment, has strong memories of the women she helped. She remembers the vacant look in their eyes after an assault, how they tended to blame themselves, how commanders sometimes gave accused soldiers with a good service record the benefit of the doubt in a he-said/she-said criminal case.

“You need an outside eye, somebody who is unbiased,” Gordon says. “They need to take (oversight of these cases) out of the unit or out of the command.”

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