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Sexual assault in military: Pentagon report, scandal deal a double blow

Even as the Pentagon prepared to report a dramatic increase in sexual assaults in the military, the officer in charge of the Air Force prevention program was alleged to have groped a woman.

News that the Pentagon was facing yet another sexual assault scandal broke, almost incredibly, on the eve of the release of a Defense Department-wide report Tuesday showing that instances of the crime in the US military had jumped from 19,000 in 2010 to 26,000 in 2012.

The breaking scandal, and the growing instances of sexual  assault throughout the military, delivered a double blow to senior Pentagon officials who promised to address the problem in recent appearances on Capitol Hill.

In response, a military women’s advocate called the system for prosecuting the crimes “broken,” and lawmakers promptly denounced the increased number of assaults as “horrifying,” vowing to introduce legislation that will “fundamentally” change the way the military investigates and prosecutes the crime.

The latest scandal involved the Air Force official in charge of the service’s sexual assault prevention program, Lt. Col. Jeff Krusinski, who was arrested on charges of groping a woman in a parking lot. The woman allegedly was forced to fight off Krusinski with scratches to his face, which were visible on his mug shot.

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel released a statement Tuesday saying he had spoken with Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley to express “outrage and disgust over the troubling allegations.”

The Pentagon will soon announce the “next steps in our ongoing efforts to combat this vile crime,” said Pentagon spokesman George Little.

In the meantime, Lt. Col. Krusinski “has been removed from his position as the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response branch chief pending the outcome of the current investigation,” says Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. John Dorrian.

Krusinski had served in that position since February.

“The alleged recent sexual misconduct of an Air Force official in charge of the Air Force’s own sexual assault prevention and response office serves to undermine” DOD efforts in this arena, said Rep. Niki Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts in a statement released Tuesday.

What’s more, the latest DOD report “indicates a staggering amount of instances of perceived retaliation against victims of sexual assault, which confirms the alarming and persistent anecdotal evidence we have heard,” she added.

Victims’ advocacy organizations weighed in as well.

“This is absolutely infuriating,” said Greg Jacob, policy director of the Service Women’s Action Network, in a statement.

“Clearly the business-as-usual manner in which the military handles sexual assault cases has led to a climate where the very officers in charge of preventing this criminal activity feel that sexual assault is acceptable behavior,” he said. “The military has proven time and again that the current system of prosecuting these cases is broken.”

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That fact is readily apparent to many within the military, who have begun to advocate for some changes to the prosecution process from within.

In January, the Air Force launched a pilot program to provide free legal counsel to victims of sexual assault within the service.

In the past, though Air Force prosecutors may have taken on an assault case, “They were responsible for representing the interests of the service, not the interests of the victim,” according to a senior Air Force official.

Combing through the last year of sexual assault statistics, Air Force officials found that nearly one third of victims who agreed to participate in the prosecution of their alleged offender changed their mind before the trial, and decided not to cooperate with the prosecution.

“I believe had these victims been represented by their own attorney, many of them would not have declined to cooperate and hold the alleged offender accountable,” said Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, judge advocate general for the US Air Force, at a panel hosted by the US Commission on Civil Rights in January.

Sixty Air Force lawyers with experience prosecuting sexual assault cases are currently participating part-time in the pilot program, which is slated to grow to 20 to 30 Air Force lawyers who will focus on the program full-time in June.

In the meantime, the nation’s top military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, has announced changes in reviews of officers, in the wake of both sexual and financial scandals.

This will include integrating the reviews of subordinates as well as supervisors in the evaluation of US military officers – what is known in the halls of the Pentagon as the “360 degree” review, a controversial prospect that some have worried aloud may undermine the traditional hierarchical structure of the military.

More than half of all victims of sexual assault within the US military report that the perpetrator was of higher rank, and nearly one quarter report that the perpetrator was in their chain of command.

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General Dempsey defended the Pentagon’s move. “Character has to count,” he said in a recent meeting with US troops stationed in Japan. “Character has to matter.”