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Pentagon reports sharp rise in military sexual assaults

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon estimated that 26,000 members of the military were sexually assaulted in unreported incidents last year — 35% more than in 2010 — a severe trend that senior officials warned could threaten recruiting and retention of women in uniform.

President Obama, reacting to the startling figures Tuesday, said he had “no tolerance” for sexual crimes in the ranks and pledged to crack down on commanders who ignored the problem. Obama said he had spoken to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and ordered that officers “up and down the food chain” get the message.

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“I expect consequences,” Obama told reporters at the White House. “If we find out that somebody’s engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable — prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged, period. It’s not acceptable.”

The worsening statistics are a blow to the Pentagon’s military and civilian leadership, who have announced repeated initiatives to combat rape and sexual assaults, only to see the problem grow.

The increase in both reported and suspected sex crimes — and evidence that many in the military still fear retaliation if they report an assault to a superior officer — comes as the military faces far-reaching social changes, including opening up combat jobs to women and lifting the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly.

It also comes two days after police in Arlington, Va., arrested the chief of the Air Force sexual assault prevention branch for allegedly groping a woman outside a bar near the Pentagon, the latest sexual scandal to hit the headlines. Officials said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski was removed from his post after the arrest.

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“This department may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime and the perception that there is tolerance of it could very well undermine our ability to effectively carry out” the military’s mission, Hagel said at a Pentagon news conference.

Hagel outlined steps he had ordered, including holding commanders accountable for preventing sexual assaults, expanding programs to help victims, and screening recruiters and training instructors. An investigation that began in 2011 at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas has turned up 59 cases of sexual assault of military recruits by drill instructors.

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In testimony Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Air Force’s top commander, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, appeared to blame broader society, noting that 20% of women report they had been sexually assaulted “before they came into the military.”

“So they come in from a society where this occurs,” he said. “Some of it is the hookup mentality of junior high even and high school students now, which my children can tell you about from watching their friends and being frustrated by it.”

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Reported sexual assaults of both men and women in the military rose to 3,374 last year, up from 3,192 a year earlier, according to the Pentagon. About 1 in 4 of those who were assaulted and received medical care declined to press charges, however, an indicator of the victims’ fear of retribution, officials said.

But the annual Defense Department report says about 6% of women surveyed, as well as 1% of male soldiers, declared they had been sexually assaulted but did not report the incidents up the chain of command. Extrapolating those percentages across the military, the report estimates 26,000 sexual assaults occurred, up from 19,300 in 2010.

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Lawmakers and experts say many victims are reluctant to come forward because they lack faith in the military justice system and fear their careers could suffer if they try to bring criminal charges, particularly against higher-ranking officers.

In two cases since early 2012, Air Force generals overturned convictions of male officers under their command who had been found guilty of sexual assault. The cases have prompted a push in Congress to overhaul the Uniform Code of Military Justice to make it more difficult for commanders to intervene in such cases.

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Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, who heads the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said the 5.7% increase in reported sexual assaults indicated that more people are willing to come forward. But he acknowledged that the 35% rise in unreported cases showed “it’s very clear we got some work to do.”

Advocates for victims criticized the Pentagon for doing too little to reverse the problem.

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Kate Weber, a former Army soldier who now counsels military sexual assault victims in Sonoma County, Calif., said in a telephone interview that she was raped by a senior officer while stationed in Germany in 1993. She said her superiors rebuffed her attempt to lodge a complaint.

The authority to prosecute “needs to be taken out of the chain of command, so a victim can report rape to an independent, uninterested party,” she said.

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Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, a victims group, said “the problems are so longstanding and pervasive that, at a minimum, it constitutes gross negligence on the part of the leadership and actually reflects … countenancing of a culture of violent abuse.”

Pentagon officials have talked publicly for years about holding officers accountable who tolerate or cover up for male subordinates accused of sex crimes. But when asked whether any officers had been disciplined for mishandling sexual assault cases, Patton offered no examples.

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In April 2012, then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta ordered that only colonels or higher-ranking officers could decide whether to prosecute a sex crime. The reform was aimed at blocking lower-level officers from protecting colleagues.

But this year, Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander at Aviano Air Base in Italy, overturned the sexual assault conviction of a lieutenant colonel, threw out his one-year prison sentence and reinstated him to duty. Franklin said he had doubts about the accuser’s credibility.

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In response, Hagel announced last month that he would urge Congress to limit a commander’s ability to overturn court-martial verdicts. But several lawmakers say that was insufficient.

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) plan to introduce legislation to amend the military code so that military prosecutors are put in control of all legal decisions on sexual assaults and other major crimes, eliminating the possibility that commanders can intervene.

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Boxer called the increase in sexual assaults “horrifying” and vowed to change how the military “investigates and prosecutes these heinous crimes.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said Tuesday that she was blocking the nomination of Lt. Gen. Susan Helms, whom Obama had nominated to be vice commander of Air Force Space Command. McCaskill said she was opposing the promotion because Helms last year overturned the conviction of Capt. Matthew S. Herrera, who was found guilty of aggravated sexual assault of a female lieutenant at Vandenburg Air Force Base.

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“That is the crux of the problem here, because if a victim does not believe that the system is capable of believing her, there’s no point to risking your entire career,” McCaskill said at a Senate hearing with Air Force officials.

In response, the Air Force released a memo written by Helms in which she expressed doubts about the victim’s testimony that she was asleep and did not consent to sex. Instead of sexual assault, Helms found Herrera guilty of committing “an indecent act,” a lesser offense. He was involuntarily discharged in December.

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david.cloud@latimes.com

Christi Parsons in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.


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