A series of sexual-assault cases has exposed a festering problem that has plagued the military for years. But the new cases and the continuing growth in reports are focusing attention on the issue like never before.
Some 70 troops a day are assaulted, according to a newly released Pentagon survey that estimates last year alone, a staggering 26,000 servicewomen, and some men, were raped, groped or otherwise sexually assaulted, a 35 percent increase from two years ago.
Those figures follow a series of high-profile cases, each more outrageous than the last:
* The arrest of a lieutenant colonel in charge of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office on allegations that he groped a woman near the Pentagon.
* The investigation of an Army sergeant first class, a sexual abuse educator, for allegedly assaulting one soldier and persuading another to work as a prostitute.
* A general’s overturning of an Air Force lieutenant colonel’s conviction on sexual assault — against the advice of his own legal team.
* Revelations about Facebook sites that denigrate junior Marines, especially women, and which had been “under investigation” for at least three years.
* A long-running scandal at Air Force basic training, where 19 instructors have been found guilty of sexually assaulting trainees or engaging in inappropriate relationships with them.
So when Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that about 20 percent of female airmen had been sexually assaulted before entering the service, and offered that part of the problem was a harmful “hook-up mentality” in broader society, it was like kicking a hornet’s nest.
Suddenly, it wasn’t just a military problem, but a national crisis. Welsh was blasted for “blaming the victim” and failing to grasp the difference between consensual sexual relations and rape and assault.
To be fair, there are kernels of truth in what he said. The sexual assault epidemic in the ranks is mirrored by a similar problem in the civilian world, but it is also exacerbated by a male-dominated military culture that often embraces brutish and boorish behavior and is too accepting of drinking to excess.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the service chiefs concede that the sexual-assault problem has grown so grave, it actually threatens national security.
That’s not an overstatement.
With one in every 50 troops at risk of being assaulted by another service member, both individual and unit readiness, morale and safety are threatened. That makes sexual assault a greater threat than illegal drugs, and it will take a similar zealous, zero-tolerance commitment to stamp it out for good.
Declaring all-out war on sexual assault in the ranks means cracking down on behaviors that facilitate sexual misconduct, including excessive drinking, sexually explicit or suggestive talk and images, tolerance of abuse, and the sense of privilege embraced by some who think women are in the military for their own sick entertainment, rather than full contributors to the mission.
And it means rethinking training, discipline and even the legal system, so that victims feel safe reporting the abuse and assailants are held accountable.
This must be done without creating an environment that leaves men in fear of being in proximity to their female colleagues, undermining trust, readiness and morale.
This is, in the end, a civil rights issue. Women are equal to men, and the military cannot tolerate any action or behavior that suggests otherwise.