The military still doesn't get it

The military's top uniformed leaders did themselves no favors in their testimony Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee about sexual assaults in the military. Certainly, they were willing to give the problem lip service, but in refusing to back the substantial reforms many in the Senate have in mind, they demonstrated that they still take the problem lightly.

How is that even possible? In case they missed it, the number of assaults taking place under their command has risen sharply — from about 19,000 in 2010 to about 26,000 last year. Yet only 3,374 sexual assaults were actually reported to authorities in 2012.

This is not some minor blemish on the record but a shocking lapse in accountability. One month ago, the military's commander in chief called for the perpetrators to be prosecuted, court-martialed, fired and dishonorably discharged. Did any of that sink in?

The problem is not just that sexual assaults are going on (and these incidents can vary from unwanted sexual touching to rape) but that the Joint Chiefs of Staff and others in command have so little interest in addressing this crisis. It isn't as if women just showed up in the military's ranks yesterday; they've been there for decades.

Remember Tailhook, when dozens of women were assaulted at a convention by Navy pilots? That was 1991. Since then, a generation of military leaders have trudged up to the Capitol vowing they had a handle on the problem of sexual assault and harassment. When only 1 in 8 assaults is ever investigated, we'd beg to differ with that assessment.

How can military leaders expect this situation to change when they insist on conducting business as usual? Their continued opposition to a proposal — offered by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, and now co-sponsored by one-fifth of the Senate — to take control of a criminal case away from commanding officers and give it to military prosecutors is inexplicable under the circumstances.

Some even argued that taking away a commander's role will reduce accountability. But here's the problem: Victims won't come forward under the current system for fear of retaliation (or perhaps a reversal of a conviction by higher-ups), so there's no possibility of accountability whatsoever.

Meanwhile, there's plenty of evidence that this problem is not going away. On Monday, a former instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy was given 60 days in a military jail for indecent behavior toward two female midshipmen. Last Friday, the Navy revealed that it is investigating the sexual assault of a female midshipman by three members of the football team. And that's just a week's worth of sexual assault news from Annapolis.

How many other incidents of criminal behavior are not being investigated because they aren't being reported at all?

This much is clear. A lot of military commanders either don't understand the nature of this problem or aren't taking these assaults seriously, or perhaps both. That's not going to change because the chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff or anyone else among the brass sends another memo down the ranks. What Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the Army's chief of staff, called a "measured approach" won't do. It's been tried before.

The good news is that Congress seems poised to intervene. The House will soon get an opportunity to include reforms in the National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate should take similar action. This may be one issue where there is bipartisan agreement.

Ultimately, the rise of sexual assaults points to a fundamental breakdown in military discipline. That, in turn, represents a threat to the nation's security. Sen. John McCain's observation during Tuesday's hearing that he could not recommend a career in the military to the daughter of a friend is a sad commentary on the state of women in service.

The late Norman Schwarzkopf — the general who commanded Operation Desert Storm — once observed that people generally know the right thing to do but that the hard part is doing it. Few problems confronting the military are more obvious than this one. It's time real action was taken to rid the armed forces of those who would harass, abuse, assault or rape a fellow soldier.

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