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Military injustice

The recent study estimating that there may have been 26,000 cases of sexual assault in the military last year stirred a lot of tough talk from the Pentagon and the White House over the past 24 hours. But the question is whether that outrage will translate into much-needed reforms within the armed forces. On that front, we have our doubts.

The U.S. military's failure to adequately address sex crimes within its ranks is hardly a new problem, but the rise of such incidents — up from 19,000 in 2010 — is shocking. President Barack Obama warned that those involved in such behavior will be "held accountable, prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged — period."

But anger and promises of action clearly aren't enough. The study results revealed Tuesday are based on confidential reporting by 108,000 service members and extrapolated to the 1.4 million men and women on active duty. Yet actual reporting of sexual assaults falls far short of what appears to be taking place.

In a separate report, the Pentagon revealed that 3,374 sexual assaults were actually reported to authorities last year. That means that only about 1 in 8 sexual assaults — defined as anything from unwanted sexual touching to rape — is ever investigated, let alone prosecuted, by the military.

Why? It's not hard to make an educated guess that many victims are reluctant to report such crimes because the perpetrators are higher up in the chain of command. They fear retribution from an instructor, drill sergeant or officer.

And only about 1 in 10 reported incidents of sexual assault ever results in a sexual-assault conviction or court-martial. So the message is clear: Report these crimes at your peril in an institution that seems to have a high tolerance for the perpetrators. Chances are, not much is going to happen — except to you.

Surely, part of the problem is cultural. Military leaders don't seem to have a sufficient understanding of the serious nature of these transgressions. At least that might explain how the U.S. Air Force's chief for sexual assault prevention could be facing charges that he attacked a woman, drunkenly groping at her breasts and buttocks in a Northern Virginia parking lot last Sunday.

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee demonstrated sufficient outrage at the allegations facing Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski during a hearing Tuesday, but more than harrumphing is required. That Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says he recognizes that the military's recruitment efforts are being fundamentally undermined by such incidents — and the perception that it tolerates them — is certainly helpful.

But it will take more than talk about holding commanders more accountable, making it less likely that convictions will be overturned by higher-ups or even instituting victim assistance programs or rewriting training manuals. What the Pentagon appears to need above all else is a system for reporting, investigating and adjudicating such crimes that inspires greater confidence in the victims of sexual assault.

As long as such investigations go up the existing chain of command, it seems likely that victims will not have confidence in them. That's why it is worth pursuing the suggestion of some in Congress, including U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, to rewrite the military code of justice so that such matters are handled by prosecutors and judges and not supervised by others in the chain of command.

Secretary Hagel frets that such an independent review would undermine military discipline. But is it really any different from how such matters are handled by the private sector every day? Assault a colleague, and the investigating officer doesn't report to your boss, he or she works for a local police department or prosecutor.

If there was one bit of good news contained in the report, it's word closer to home that sexual assaults are down at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis — from 22 in 2011 to 13 last year. Too bad the trend appears to be an aberration that runs counter to what's happening at the other service academies and in the military at large.

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