One day after the Air Force’s chief of sexual assault prevention and response branch was himself arrested on a charge of sexual battery, the Pentagon released a new report that sexual assaults in the military are occurring at an alarming rate of more than 70 per day.
The report comes on the heels of a string of high-profile cases of sexual assault in the Air Force that have led lawmakers and others to call for a change to the way the chain of command handles such cases.
The number of estimated sexual assaults in the military rose sharply from 2011 to 2012, according to the Defense Department report due to be released Tuesday afternoon, parts of which were highlighted in news releases from lawmakers. For fiscal 2011, the military estimated there were 19,000 cases of sexual assault, while 3,192 cases were reported. In fiscal 2012, the estimate spiked to 26,000 cases, with just 3,374 cases reported. Estimates are based on anonymous surveys given by the Department of Defense to members of all the services.
The report is issued annually by the DOD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office.
When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel releases the report, he is expected to call for greater accountability — in part by ordering military leaders to assess commanders on the culture they create in their units, the Associated Press reported.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday morning that the numbers highlight the need to act “swiftly and decisively” to address sexual assault in the military.
Also Tuesday, senators Patty Murray and Kelly Ayotte introduced a bill to provide a military lawyer to all victims of sexual assault in the military, to empower the DOD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office to better oversee efforts to track and report statistics, to bar sexual contact between military training instructors and trainees during and within 30 days of completion of basic training, and other measures.
The Air Force recently began a pilot program to provide military lawyers to victims of sexual assault, but it is the only service to do so thus far.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III told the committee that the service would seek jurisdiction in the case of Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski — one of the Air Force’s point men in attempting to prevent sexual assaults — who was arrested Sunday and charged with sexual battery. He’s accused of approaching a woman in a parking lot and grabbing her breasts and buttocks.
When asked by lawmakers if civilian courts would view the military justice system as credible after a string of recent sexual assault controversies, Welsh pointed to an Air Force prosecution rate in 2012 that was 1 percent below the national average and a conviction rate that was 3 percent above national average.
Meanwhile, when asked by lawmakers whether generals should have the authority to reverse jury decisions in sexual assault cases — an ongoing controversy in the aftermath of Air Force. Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin’s decision to throw out the aggravated sexual assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson — Welsh said those powers in the Uniformed Code of Military Justice should be examined and subject to review.
“It’s clearly an issue we need to debate openly and honestly,” he said.
On a commanders’ ability to review and make changes to findings of a court, “My personal opinion is, there is no need for that,” Welsh added. “We have a court, we have a military judge in the courtroom. We have an appeals process. I do believe the commander has a role in reviewing the findings — the sentencing of court, and I believe we should talk very carefully about the commander’s involvement in that because there are reasons to keep the commander involved in that discussion.”
Still, Welsh noted that there have been only five cases in which convening authorities have reversed jury decisions in sexual assault cases. Among those, the Wilkerson case was the only one in which a jury’s decision was completely set aside, he said.
“It doesn’t happen routinely,” Welsh said.
Lawmakers, however, said the military must do more to ensure that victims know the chain of command will take charges of assault seriously and that justice will be served.
“They don’t feel there is an atmosphere by which they can report safely,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY. Victims feel “there isn’t a climate by which they can receive justice in the system.”