US military must not tolerate sexual assaults

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Those serving in the U.S. military must be disciplined and follow strict orders. It’s the way the military can function when soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are deployed in defense of the nation in dangerous, high-stress situations.

That’s a given, correct?

Why then have the cases of military sexual assault last year — 26,000 according to numbers released by the Pentagon last week — increased by 34.5 percent from 2011 to 2012? And why, according to the same Pentagon report, have the number of victims not reporting their attacks skyrocketed to 92 percent?

The only reasonable explanation is that sexual assaults are not viewed as serious problems or a crime by many (as in too many) of the troops and by the brass. If so, it’s outrageous and the military needs to change its culture.

“Sexual assault is an outrage, it is a crime ... and if it’s happening inside our military then whoever carries it out is betraying the uniform they’re wearing,” President Obama said last week. “They may consider themselves patriots but when you (behave this way) it’s not patriotic, it’s a crime.”

While Obama’s assessment is correct (and, really, who can disagree?), as commander-in-chief he must take significant responsibility for the rapid increase in sexual assaults. It’s his watch.

The top military commanders as well as Congress also bear responsibility.

Current regulations allow commanding officers to reverse criminal convictions.

“Commanders should not have this authority. ... They are conflicted in this whole process. The fact that the assault happens under their watch reflects poorly on them. ... The bias is commanders tend to trust people they know best, the high ranking individual, the more high valued service member who is often the perpetrator,” Nancy Parrish, president of Protect our Defenders, told CBS News. “You don’t have a lot of privates raping or sexually assaulting colonels. The military justice system is broken. ... Victims are reluctant to come forward for fear of retaliation, victims are punished and perpetrators rarely are prosecuted.”

Obama has now addressed the increase in sexual assaults and seems willing to take action. That’s a positive step.

Obama and the generals and admirals set the tone for behavior.

The military, by design, is a top-down organization. If Obama and the generals and admirals issue an order, it will be followed — or else.

Unfortunately, to this point, high ranking officers have looked the other way to avoid the “or else” — punishment — for them and those in their command.

The escalation of sexual assaults in the U.S. military is shameful, and it must end.

Congress needs to take a serious look at the military justice system to reduce the sexual assaults and make sure justice is served.

Obama and his top commanders must establish a clear “no tolerance” policy for sexual assaults.

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