The Pentagon released its annual report on sexual assault Tuesday, just a day after the Air Force's head of sexual assault prevention himself was charged with sexual assault. The report shows a dramatic rise in the number of service members who claim to have been sexually assaulted, but never came forward to report their attacks. From 2011 to 2012, that figure increased by 37%, from 19,000 in 2011 to 26,000 in 2012.
The surge in unreported claims of sexual assault underscore the crippling fear and stigma that afflict the victims of sexual assault. And the charges against Lt. Col. Jeff Krusinski, arrested early Monday morning for drunkenly groping a woman in a Virginia parking lot, highlight the failure of the military to end its culture of sexual assault.
In a press conference at the White House on Tuesday, President Obama said that he had spoken with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel about the need to "exponentially step up" efforts to combat "the outrage" of sexual assault in the military. The president's message to the victims was, "I've got their backs." Anyone responsible "is betraying the uniform that they're wearing," Obama said, adding that "we need to do everything we can to root this out completely."
Earlier on Tuesday, the secretary and chief of staff of the Air Force testified before senators at a budget hearing. Yet they were summarily grilled on the subject of sexual assault, one of them, Michigan's Democratic Senator Carl Levin, called sexual assault "a plague" within the military.
Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri implored Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh to explain how Krusinski was qualified for the job of leading the Air Force's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO).
"This is not someone who understood what this job is about," McCaskill said. "Have you looked at his file?"
"Yes, Sir," Welsh replied, quickly correcting himself. "Pardon me. Yes, senator, I have. His record is very good."
In the most heated moment of the hearing, Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York delivered an impassioned plea to the Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff to do better.
"If the man in charge for the Air Force in preventing sexual assault is being alleged to having committed a sexual assault this weekend, obviously there's a failing in training and understanding of what sexual assault is and how corrosive and damaging it is to good order and discipline, and how it is undermining the credibility of the greatest military force in the world," Gillibrand said. "This is not good enough."
Gillibrand joined Andrea Mitchell Reports soon after the hearing to discuss her hopes for change. One solution, she says, is removing the process of reporting and prosecuting sexual assault from within the military's chain of command, in order to make that process more independent and objective.
"When someone is raped or someone is victimized or someone is sexually assaulted, one of the problems is, they have to report those crimes to their chain of command," she said. "And just as we saw this weekend, if the individual in the military, in the Air Force, who is charged with preventing sexual assault and rape is committing sexual assault on the weekend, you don't have a culture that's going to respect victims and make sure that victims have justice."
Gillibrand pointed to the new Pentagon report as proof of a broken system.
"If you have arguably 26,000 sexual assaults and rapes a year in the military, but only maybe 3,000 or so are reported, and then only a handful of convictions, it's not good enough. You're lacking in transparency, accountability and justice for those who are assaulted," she said.
Senator Gillibrand told Mitchell that the military's "zero tolerance" policy is not good enough, and what we need is "zero occurrence."
"The bottom line is the men and women who serve in our military do so admirably. And we should not be asking of them to serve and perhaps lose a limb and even lose their life, and then say to them, and oh, you also may be raped or sexually assaulted by your colleagues."