Last week’s Pentagon report on sexual assaults in the military will be difficult to ignore.
Americans may have been aware that this was a growing problem in the U.S. military, but few probably would have guessed the extent of the epidemic the Pentagon described.
Despite various efforts to try to address the problem, the Pentagon, which certainly has no incentive to inflate these numbers, estimated that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year. That’s only an estimate because the vast majority of these incidents go unreported. There were fewer than 3,400 reported incidents last year, the survey said, and nearly 800 of those reports came from people — men and women — who declined to file complaints against their alleged attackers. That means that only about one-tenth of the assaults the Pentagon thinks occurred last year were even pursued, let alone resulted in any meaningful punishment.
The numbers are shocking, but some of the individual stories that have come out in the last week are even more disturbing. There was the arrest, just days before the Pentagon report was released, of the Air Force’s head of sexual assault prevention on, yes, assault charges after he allegedly groped a woman in a Virginia parking lot. There are at least two cases of military superior officers unilaterally reversing sexual assault convictions of people under their command — and an ongoing investigation of a report that 62 trainees were assaulted or were victims of improper conduct over a four-year period by 32 instructors at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. In addition, since the Pentagon report was released, many individuals have shared with various news outlets their experience with sexual assault in the military and the effect it had on both their personal lives and their careers.
The only good news in connection with this report is that it may finally have spurred the kind of attention this problem deserves among top military and elected officials. A variety of solutions are being discussed, including taking responsibility for dealing with sexual assault reports away from commanding officers and giving it to either military or civilian prosecutors. Even more important, however, may be a tough initiative to change a military culture that has hidden and, therefore, tacitly condoned the kind of behavior that now is coming to light.
Some observers have expressed concern that, now that this issue has captured their attention, elected U.S. officials may overreact or take ill-advised or hasty action to address the problem. That may be possible, but officials shouldn’t allow this problem to be put on the back burner. Do the math. Twenty-six thousand sexual assaults in one year; that’s 500 assaults every week. That simply can’t be allowed to continue.