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When will it stop? Sexual assault claims pile up in military

Updated: Monday, 10:17 am
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) and Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey hold a joint news conference at the Pentagon in Washington March 17, 2013.  (Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (L) and Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey hold a joint news conference at the Pentagon in Washington March...

Updated: Monday, 10:17 am

“There is no silver bullet,” for stopping military sexual assault President Obama said earlier this week. Surely, that came as no surprise to his former defense secretary, Leon Panetta, who said more than a year ago: “There is no silver bullet when it comes” to solving military sexual assault.

That couldn’t have been news to K.C. McClain. As an Air Force brigadier general in 2005, McClain told reporters then that a series of actions the Pentagon was taking—again to combat sexual assault—was “not a silver bullet. To do this right, it is going to take time,” she said.

Incredibly, Chuck Hagel, the current secretary of defense, came out to alert the troops on Friday that there is no “silver bullet” to fixing a problem that just gets worse.

For 20 years, some of the most powerful men—from commanders-in-chief to the Pentagon’s top brass—have leaned on a single cliché each time they have been forced to confront the epidemic of military sexual assault.

During that same period of time more and more servicemembers have been raped and abused by their colleagues. Perhaps it might be time to move on from the “silver bullet” theory and start looking for more effective weapons to combat the problem.

More than 20 years ago, a massive sexual assault scandal involving dozens of female service members rocked the military and prompted Congress to demand swift action to change a culture rife with misogyny and violence. Investigations into the incident, later known as “Tailhook,” proved embarrassing for the Navy in how it handled sexual assaults and led to proposals and programs designed to combat harassment. Legislators at the time called it a “watershed event” that could eradicate harassment altogether. But two decades and two wars later has laid bare a thick chain of empty promises to protect service members and punish perpetrators of sexual assault.

Those at fault start at the very top. In the last two weeks, two high-ranking officers tasked with heading sexual assault and harassment prevention programs in two different branches of the military have been accused of abusing women.

Democrat Sen. Kay Hagan, a member of the Senate Armed Services committee, described a fearful scene while on Morning Joe Monday morning.

“Women actually have told me they’d limit the intake of fluid in the late afternoon, early evening, so they don’t have to use the latrine late at night in the middle of the night, because they’re worried about sexual assault,” she said.

Calling it “shameful, disgraceful,” and “dangerous to our national security,” Obama tasked his top officials in the Defense Department to renew efforts to do better by soldiers who find themselves less safe in their own ranks than on the battlefield.

This is not the first time the Pentagon has responded to sexual crimes by calling for more awareness and training. Senators and House members want to overhaul the military justice system after years of promises to study the scope of the problem and policies that have done virtually nothing to reduce the number of assaults. In the world of the military, simply defining what constitutes “sexual assault” is counted as an accomplishment.

In September 1991, more than 100 Navy and Marine pilots assaulted 83 women and seven men at the annual Tailhook Association convention. A House Armed Services Committee report released the following year said the scandal, and the Navy’s subsequent botched investigation, provided a chance for the Pentagon to change the course of sexual harassment in the military.

The committee’s chairman at the time, Democratic Rep. Les Aspin of Wisconsin, was optimistic about the military’s ability to launch a “successful program against sexual harassment on the scale of the successful program against racial discrimination and against drug use” within five years. The result? Sensitivity training and a 1-800 number for reporting complaints. Aspin brought that optimism with him when he became secretary of defense in 1993, but his 11-month tenure ended without any major reforms.

In early 2003, the Air Force began an investigation into reports that it had ignored rampant sexual assault at its academy for at least a decade. The Denver Post published a multi-part investigative series that November that exposed the problem as systemic, detailing retaliation against survivors, the military’s lackluster response, and widespread violence.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2004 ordered a comprehensive review of the Pentagon’s sexual assault policies. A report issued a few months later found that policies for preventing assaults were inconsistent across branches, there were no safeguards for confidentiality, and support resources for survivors was sorely lacking.

A year later, a task force recommended expanded education programs, changed reporting procedures to protect victims, and defined–for the first time–what constituted sexual assault.

According to data collected by the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, there were 1,700 sexual assaults reported in 2004. The military recorded nearly 3,200 reports in 2011, and estimated the actual number was approximately 19,000.

Panetta responded to the report with a long list of changes meant to “fundamentally change” the way the military dealt with sexual assault. Calling the crisis a “serious problem” that “violates everything the U.S. military stands for,” these changes came on the heels of additional initiatives his office made in January, 2012 and December 2011. The Pentagon would create Special Victims Units and make changes to the way cases are dealt with by the chain of command.

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Advocates for survivors of assault expressed skepticism at the reforms, arguing that were little more than cosmetic improvements to mask a hopelessly damaged foundation.

Groups such as the Service Women’s Action Network have long argued that military sexual assault will not decrease until the Pentagon looks outside itself for solutions to the problem. As SWAN executive director Anu Bhagwati told msnbc this week, “the solution is not going to come from top military brass, it’s going to come from [places like] rape crisis organizations.”

The president said on Thursday that had faith in Secretary of Defense Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey to “lead a process” to protect American soldiers. Hagel has ordered retraining and re-screening of all the officers assigned to deal sexual assault and harassment prevention and response but has not yet offered other specific policy recommendations. He also asked for patience, saying that a nine-member panel needed to “go in and really assess the problem” that a nearly 800-page report released last week laid out in detail.

But patience is wearing thin considering that the Pentagon has said 90% of an estimated 26,000 military sexual assaults went unreported last year.

Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Barbara Boxer of California, along with Republican Susan Collins of Maine are leading a push for a massive overhaul of the way sexual assault cases are dealt with. A bill they are co-sponsoring would remove from the chain of command completely sexual assault and other serious non-military crimes that carry a potential sentence of one year or more. Other bills sponsored by members of the House and Senate would increase punishments for convicted sex offenders and take away the power of officers to overturn or reduce sentences handed down by military juries.

Claire McCaskill, the Democratic senator who is sponsoring the bill to remove the power to overturn convictions, placed a hold on Lieutenant General Susan Helm’s nomination to be vice commander of the Air Force’s Space Command after learning that Helms had overturned a sexual assault conviction.

These proposals have already drawn criticism from members of the military community, most notably Secretary Hagel, who insist they can handle the problem themselves.

Women senators disagree. “We believe enough is enough,” Gillibrand said when she introduced her bill. “It is time to change this system that has been held over since George Washington that is simply not working today for the men and women who are serving.”

On Saturday's show, SWAN executive director Anu Bhagwati joined Melissa Harris-Perry to discuss the pervasive nature of the sexual assault epidemic sweeping the military. Watch below: