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Editorial

Military is losing war on sexual abuse

The war on sexual assaults in America’s armed forces has been under way for more than five years and the military, along with its codes of conduct, culture and judicial system, has been losing. Assaults on soldiers, both male and female, are increasing, not decreasing, and may top 26,000 cases per year. One sign after another suggests that it’s a battle the military is incapable of winning on its own. Congress must act.

Senators and representatives, including all four members of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation, have sponsored bills or otherwise supported legislation designed to put an end to what is both a national scandal and a national security threat: a sexual assault rate that makes victims of one of every three female service members.

But female soldiers, who make up 14.5 percent of the active military, aren’t the only victims. In raw numbers, more male soldiers, about 14,000 per year, report being raped or sexually assaulted by other males. The true rate of sexual harassment or rape, however, is impossible to judge, since the pressure not to report an assault, particularly for males, is extreme. One survey estimated the reporting rate at 10 percent.

At this point, it’s hard to say which bill or bills would do the most to reduce assaults that force highly trained women to give up military careers and deter others from enlisting. One thing, however, is clear: The military has forfeited its right to operate as a judicial system unto its own. Changes to the military code of justice must be made to restore faith that members of the armed forces who have the courage to report an assault – most often carried out by a male officer of higher rank – are not demonized but instead receive justice.

Earlier this month, Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, leader of the force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response unit, was arrested for drunkenly assaulting a female soldier outside a bar. A Fort Hood, Texas, sexual abuse educator was charged with running a prostitution ring that took advantage of young female soldiers.

Israel’s defense force has been coed since its inception, and Israel is the only nation to draft women into roles that include combat. But despite this mixed gender history and a famed reputation for discipline, Israel’s military struggles with sexual assaults, too.

All this shows how difficult changing military culture can be. America’s military, the president, defense secretary and Congress can’t give up.

Military commanders have the power to ignore the recommendations of sexual assault investigators and overrule the decisions of military juries. Several generals, male and female, have done so in the past year. That destroys faith in the system. It also reinforces a hierarchical structure that, while necessary to conduct a war, contributes to a power imbalance that makes senior members of the military believe that they can get away with assaults and are entitled to abuse junior service members.

According to the Pentagon, sexual assaults in the military increased by more than one third between 2010 and 2012, despite ballyhooed efforts to reduce them. For the good of the nation, a way must be found to put an end to the assaults. Taking the power to overturn convictions away from military commanders would be a good place to start.

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