Earlier this week, the leader of the U.S. Air Force’s sexual assault task force was arrested and charged with committing one of the crimes he was tasked with preventing. Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Krusinski, 41, was charged with sexual battery on Sunday after he allegedly got drunk and grabbed a woman’s breasts and buttocks in a parking lot in Crystal City, Virginia (located near the Pentagon). Krusinski – who heads up the Air Force’s “Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office” – was dismissed from his post on Monday pending an investigation.
Back in April 2012 then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta ordered that local unit commanders must report charges of serious sexual abuse to “a special court-martial convening authority” and instituted other initiatives aimed at ensuring that sexual assault cases received “high-level attention.” But he left in place the existing structure that allows commanders (who in some cases are also the assailants and who rarely have legal training) the discretion to investigate or charge rape and other sexual assaults.
The case of Lt. Colonel Krusinski illustrates the problem with that existing structure.
In January, then-Secretary Panetta made the decision to clear women for combat by eliminating the 1994 “Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule,” which generally barred women from assignment to units below brigade level when the unit’s primary mission was direct ground combat. Many argued that allowing women to serve in combat roles would destroy unit cohesion. Yet despite this ban, and others before it, American women have served in the military since there has been an America to serve.
This service has included positions that exposed them to danger and death.
But as the New York Times‘ Gail Collins wrote back in January, the most serious safety concern for women in the military isn’t enemy fire – it is sexual attacks from fellow members of their own service.
Because this crime is so underreported – which follows the trend of underreporting of rape in society as a whole due to stigma and fear of not being believed – it is impossible to say how many women suffer sexual assault while they’re in uniform. The Department of Defense estimates roughly 19,000 sexual assaults occur each year within the military services, and just a fraction of those – 3,192 in 2011 – are reported.
Collins argued that allowing women to enjoy the benefits of serving in combat positions might make the way sexual assaults are treated in the military better for them. Why? Because it would mean more women serving at the top of the military, which inevitably would mean more attention to women’s issues. Military women are even less likely to report rapes than civilian women, due to their desire to achieve in an even more male-dominated culture than the one that the rest of us live in.
The use of date-rape drugs is prevalent in the military, as is the refusal by superiors to believe rape charges. Reporting a rape in the military can easily end a soldier’s career. The pain of a military rape is exacerbated by the fact that it is committed by a person that a woman trusted with her life in a dangerous situation, only to have that same person assault her, threaten to end her heard-earned career if she dares to speak up, and call her a liar in front of her fellow soldiers and superiors if she does.
Prior to Panetta’s directive in January, however, things were still getting worse for women in the military.
Krusinki’s arrest came just two days before the Pentagon released its own survey Tuesday revealing a 6 percent rise in sexual assaults from the 3,192 incidents reported in fiscal year 2011 to 3,374 reported in fiscal year 2012. But even those numbers do not reflect the true reality of sexual assault in the military. The Pentagon estimates the real number of assaults, including those that were not reported for the reasons given above, to be approximately 26,000 – up from 19,000 in 2010. That estimate of the total number of sexual assaults is based on an anonymous survey of service members.
These numbers clearly show that most victims do not report criminal sexual assaults to their superiors. Additionally, only a small percentage —238 of the 3,192 reported incidents in 2011 — resulted in a conviction, which is also a deterrent to reporting.
Responding to the Krusinki arrest and the new Pentagon report, President Obama said at a press conference on Tuesday, “Bottom line is, I have no tolerance for this. I have communicated this to the Secretary of Defense. We’re going to communicate this again to folks up and down the chain (of command).” Obama also insisted on real action to address a problem that is by no means new to the U.S. military. “I expect consequences,” he said. “I don’t want just more speeches, awareness programs or training where people ultimately look the other way.” The president said service members found to be responsible for such crimes should be stripped of their positions, court-martialed, and dishonorably discharged.
Obama’s new Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, said on Tuesday that “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 mission and to recruit and retain the good people we need.”
He’s right. The military – at all levels – must take this problem seriously, believe victims and prosecute offenders fully. The credibility of our armed forces is being undermined, and there are untold numbers of qualified women who would like to serve but are undoubtedly reluctant to enter this culture of sexual assault and coverup. That is shameful.
I am still hopeful that with the inevitable increase in leadership roles for women in the military that will come with the recent directive clearing them for combat, there will also come a change in the paternalistic, boys’ club culture that discourages women from – and even punishes them – for reporting sexual assaults by fellow service members. Preserving unit cohesion is not an excuse not to report a rape; preserving unit cohesion should be a deterrent to rape. It shouldn’t have to be said, but it must: Do not rape your fellow soldier.
Amy Lazenby is a wife, mother of three and small business owner with her husband who splits her time between South Carolina and Georgia. She writes with a liberal world view on most issues, but enjoys exploring where the liberal and libertarian political axes intersect. Follow her on Twitter @Mrs_Laz.