Rape is center stage this week after the dramatic rescue of three women from close to a decade of imprisonment in a house on a quiet street in Cleveland. The suspect, Ariel Castro, has been charged with kidnap and rape. These horrific allegations have shocked the nation, and demand a full investigation and a vigorous prosecution.
Also this week, the Pentagon released a shocking new report on rape and sexual assault in the U.S. military. According to the latest available figures, an estimated average of 70 sexual assaults are committed daily within the U.S. military, or 26,000 per year. The number of actually reported sexual assaults for the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2012 was 3,374. Of that number, only 190 were sent to a court-martial proceeding.
There is a growing epidemic of rape and sexual assault in the U.S. military, perpetrated against both women and men with almost complete impunity.
The situation blew up this week when the head of the U.S. Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office was himself arrested for sexual assault. Lt. Col. Jeff Krusinski, 41, was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a parking lot outside an Arlington, Va., strip club. This comes after a recent case where a senior military officer overturned the sexual assault court-martial conviction of an officer under his command. Air Force Lt. Col. James Wilkerson was accused of sexually assaulting Kimberly Hanks at the Aviano Air Base in Italy. He was found guilty by a military jury, and sentenced to one year in jail and dismissal from military service. His conviction was overturned by Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin. Adding insult to the reversal, Wilkerson was transferred to an Air Force base in Tucson, Ariz., where many of Hanks’ family members live. They were joined by close to 50 people outside the base, protesting the overturning of his conviction and his transfer to their town. They are asking for his sentence and dismissal to be reinstated, and for Franklin to be fired.
President Barack Obama addressed the rape epidemic at a press conference this week, saying: “If we find out somebody is engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable. Prosecuted. Stripped of their position. Court-martialed. Fired. Dishonorably discharged. Period. This is not acceptable."
Anu Bhagwati is a former Marine officer, having served from 1999 to 2004, and is executive director and co-founder of Service Women’s Action Network. SWAN works to eliminate discrimination, harassment and assault from military culture, and to improve veterans’ benefits for those who have been assaulted. She told a Senate hearing last March: “During my five years as a Marine officer, I experienced daily discrimination and sexual harassment. I was exposed to a culture rife with sexism, rape jokes, pornography and widespread commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls, both in the United States and overseas.”
When she filed a career-ending complaint against a fellow officer, she said she “lived in fear of retaliation and violence from both the offender and my own chain of command, and then watched in horror as the offender was not only promoted but also given command of my company.”
I spoke with Bhagwati, who explained how the military prosecution of these cases has an inherent conflict of interest, which undermines the ability to obtain convictions: “Commanding officers—they’re called convening authorities—have authority from beginning to end of a trial. They determine whether or not a case even goes forward, whether or not the accused even sees the inside of a court-martial. That’s where a lot of the intimidation happens. That’s where a lot of victims feel the fear. They’re not supported. They don’t follow through with their cases.”
Along with SWAN and similar groups, the campaign to end sexual assault in the U.S. military has attracted significant attention from the historically largest class of women in the U.S. Congress. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., has long led the charge from the House floor. The Senate Armed Services Committee now has seven women members, a record. This week, in a hearing of that committee, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., grilled Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh. Alongside Gillibrand was Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who has put a hold on President Obama’s appointment of Lt. Gen. Susan Helms to be vice commander of the Air Force’s Space Command, because Helms overturned the conviction of a captain at Vandenberg Air Force Base on sexual-assault charges.
Public attention is rightly focused on the horrible crimes in Cleveland. It’s time for the epidemic of rape and sexual assault in the military to get the attention it deserves, as well, where the problem is institutional. An estimated 70 sexual-assault crimes per day, perpetrated on both women and men. Commander in Chief Obama must take decisive action, now. Taking the investigations and prosecutions out of the military’s hands is a first, necessary step to address this systemic rape culture presided over by the Pentagon.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.