J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Sexual assaults in the military are a growing epidemic across the services and thousands of victims are still unwilling to come forward despite a slew of new oversight and assistance programs, according to Pentagon documents.
Troubling new numbers estimate up to 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year in survey results released days after the Air Force's head of sexual assault prevention was arrested last weekend on charges of groping a woman in a suburban Virginia parking lot.
That arrest followed a series of scandals including an ongoing investigation into more than 30 Air Force instructors for assaults on trainees at a Texas base. Officials are also reconsidering the tradition of allowing commanding officers to overturn military jury verdicts, such as an officer did recently in favor of another officers convicted of sexual assault.
The Associated Press obtained documents and memos related to a new Pentagon report slated for release Tuesday. The documents show that the number of sexual assaults actually reported by members of the military rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012. But a survey of personnel who were not required to reveal their identities showed the number of service members actually assaulted could be a many as 26,000, but they never reported the incidents, officials said Tuesday.
That number is an increase over the 19,000 estimated assaults in 2011.
The statistics highlight the dismal results that military leaders have achieved in their drive to change the culture within the ranks, even as the services redoubled efforts to launch new programs to assist the victims, encourage reporting and increase commanders' vigilance.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a series of steps and reviews to increase officers' accountability for what happens under their commands, and to inspect workstations for objectionable materials, according to memos and documents obtained by the AP.
Hagel ordered military leaders to develop a method to assess commanders and hold them accountable on their ability to create a climate "of dignity and respect." He has given commanders until July 1 to visually inspect workspaces to make sure they are free of degrading materials, and military leaders have until Nov. 1 to recommend ways to assess officers and hold them accountable for their command climates.
"Sexual assault is a crime that is incompatible with military service and has no place in this department," Hagel said in a new response plan the department will release Tuesday. "It is an affront to the American values we defend, and it is a stain on our honor. DoD needs to be a national leader in combating sexual assault and we will establish an environment of dignity and respect, where sexual assault is not tolerated, condoned, or ignored."
While the latest cases involve Air Force members, the problem extends across all the military services.
Across Capitol Hill, lawmakers demanded the Pentagon take more aggressive steps to address the growing problem and they announced renewed efforts to pass legislation to battle the problem.
"When our best and our brightest put on a uniform and join the United States Armed Forces, they do so with the understanding that they will sacrifice much in the name of defending our country and its people. However, it's unconscionable to think that entertaining unwanted sexual contact from within the ranks is now part of that equation," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "Not only are we subjecting our men and women to this disgusting epidemic, but we're also failing to provide the victims with any meaningful support system once they have fallen victim to these attacks."
This week's sexual battery arrest of Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinki, who headed the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response unit, provided a rallying point for lawmakers, who held it up Tuesday as an example of the Pentagon's failure to make progress despite the increased effort.
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