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Editorial: Military must work harder to defend its own from assaults

May. 12, 2013 @ 10:25 PM

People serving in the U.S. military face all kinds of threats and hazards, ranging from enemies in overseas war zones to dangerous training missions on American soil.

Should they also have to contend with an epidemic of sexual assaults that continues to be embedded in all the military branches? Apparently so, according to a new report from the Department of Defense.

What's most troubling about the report is that the military seems to be making little or no headway in combating a problem that repeatedly has gained attention.

The documents released last week show that the number of sexual assaults officially reported by members of the military rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012. However, a survey of personnel who were not required to reveal their identities showed the number of service members actually assaulted could be as many as 26,000, a discrepancy explained by the fact that most of those incidents were never reported, officials said. In 2011, the number of estimated assaults was more than 19,000.

The trend is clearly headed in the wrong direction, raising questions about how effective -- and how sincere -- efforts have been in recent years to reverse it. As if to put an exclamation point on how dismal the progress has been, the Air Force's head of sexual assault prevention was arrested earlier this month on charges that he groped a woman in a Northern Virginia parking lot.

Obviously, the message is not being relayed forcefully enough by commanders and the ranks are not listening.

The situation is especially disconcerting because in the last 20 to 30 years, strides have been made to reduce sexual assaults and harassment in workplaces generally. Granted, the military workplace is much more far flung and involves all kinds of conditions, many less than ideal and many where it's difficult to oversee troops' behavior. But the apparent lack of progress as detailed in last week's report means military leaders have much more work to do.

The initial response from new Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at least seemed directed where it should be -- holding military commanders more accountable for what's happening under their auspices. He has told military leaders to develop by Nov. 1 a method to assess commanders and hold them accountable on their ability to create a climate "of dignity and respect,'' according to news reports. Commanders also have until July 1 to visually inspect workspaces to make sure they are free of degrading materials.

Some members of Congress also are contemplating legislation that would take away military officers' authority to overturn convictions for serious offenses such as sexual assault. That is in reaction to an Air Force officer's decision to reverse a jury verdict in a sexual assault case. That's an important step, too.

Increased accountability starting at the top of the command chain and working all the way down could help -- if top officials indeed take action against those who fail to carry out this mission. The key is to let those in charge know that continued failure is not an option if they want to continue their military careers.

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