Apparently, May was Harass Your Female Subordinates Month in the U.S. military. I didn’t get the press release, but a number of news items brought me up to speed.
A sergeant at West Point is being investigated for secretly videotaping at least a dozen female cadets at West Point while they showered or were in the bathroom undressing. The Army didn’t announce the investigation; it was leaked to the New York Times.
That revelation came a week after we learned that Sgt. 1st Class Gregory McQueen, stationed at Fort Hood in Texas, is being investigated for running a prostitution ring. His day job is sexual abuse educator at the base. No kidding. His side line in pimping was exposed when he sexually assaulted a private who refused to join his enterprise.
Then, of course, there was the colonel who heads the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office who was arrested for grabbing a woman’s breasts and buttocks in a parking lot.
Gentlemen, we have a problem.
These are not isolated incidents. And despite their obvious appeal to late-night comedy writers, each and every one of these episodes is a story of abuse and intimidation and suffering. Worse, this kind of behavior in the armed forces goes largely unreported and unpunished.
The Pentagon found that unreported sexual assaults within the branches of the U.S. military increased to 26,000 in 2012, up from 19,000 such cases in the previous year. Reported sexual assaults rose to 3,374 from 3,192.
The U.S. military has proved to be a sexually hostile environment for women — and for a fair number of men as well. By the Pentagon’s own measures, women are more likely to become victims of sexual assault while in the military than in civilian life.
No one is sure of the real number of assaults, as reporting is low. The Pentagon’s figures are derived from surveys where personnel didn’t have to identify themselves and risk reprisal.
That hints at the real problem.
The wolves can’t continue guarding the chicken coop. The military has had long enough to fix its sexual discrimination problems. Nothing has significantly changed its culture. Not pushes for increased reporting of incidents, more sexual harassment training, or little nips and tucks in the chain of command.
What is needed are measures far beyond the well-intentioned efforts that trace back to the early 1990s when the Tailhook scandal broke and more than 90 victims were identified as having been forcibly disrobed, groped and subjected to a range of other offenses during a drunken Navy aviator convention.
Both the House and the Senate are mulling new ways to address the problem.
Victims must often go to their commander to report an attack. In some cases, the commander is the accused and victims are understandably reluctant to approach officials who have the power to sink their career.
A huge factor is that military law still allows for commanders to set aside decisions, or change the rulings of a court martial.
That could change in some cases of rape and serious sexual assault under legislation now being considered. Dishonorable discharge might become the rule for some convictions. The measures have bipartisan support.
At last, Congress appears outraged enough to force significant changes, far beyond being satisfied with window-dressing measures like sensitivity classes.
Through the years, whenever these embarrassments have arisen, military brass could be counted on to issue stalwart-sounding resolutions to change the culture of our armed forces. And we are hearing them again.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called for all the services to “retrain, recredential and rescreen all sexual assault prevention and response personnel and military recruiters.” And Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno had this to say: “It is time we take on the fight against sexual assault and sexual harassment as our primary mission. It is up to every one of us, civilian and soldier, general officer to private, to solve this problem within our ranks.”
Here’s a more direct way to put it. The U.S. military is not the man’s world it once was. Women make up significant portions of the military. West Point has been open to women for nearly 40 years. They are about 15 percent of the 4,400 cadets.
This year, the military agreed to allow women to apply for ground combat positions for the first time. Women are 25 percent of those in basic training. And 147 died so far in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They are soldiers, not sexual playthings. Anybody who doesn’t get that should have no place in our armed forces.
(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
AP Photo/Mike Groll