Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.
Just a couple of years ago, we believed America’s military services had finally begun to deal effectively with a huge and out-of-control problem: a virulent epidemic of sexual assaults. The problem wasn’t confined to any one or two of the armed services. It was essentially out of control in all of them. It took decades of public exposure, congressional hearings and pressure from the White House before the services dealt forcefully with sexual assaults.
And now, it appears that most of the Pentagon’s progress has evaporated. There was a nearly 38 percent increase in sexual assaults reported by service members in 2018, according to data released last week. The Pentagon’s records show about 20,500 cases of “unwanted sexual contact” in 2018. That includes rape, forcible sodomy, groping and other sexual offenses. That’s up from about 14,900 reported assaults in 2016. The military reports on sexual assaults are released every other year.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said last week that the Pentagon needs to do more about a culture that allows sexual assaults and harassment to continue. “To put it bluntly, we are not performing up to the standards and expectations we have for ourselves or each other,” he said in a memo reported by The Washington Post. “This is unacceptable. We cannot shrink from facing the challenge head-on. We must, and will, do better.”
Those would be encouraging words if we hadn’t heard them so many times before — ever since the revelation of the 1991 “Tailhook” scandal that involved Navy and Marine Corps aviators. That investigation led to a gradual recognition that sexual assault was rampant in all the services.
The alarming spike in assaults — and these are only the ones reported, not the total that really occurred — comes as many members of Congress were shaken by testimony from Sen. Martha McSally, the Arizona Republican who’s a retired fighter pilot. McSally revealed that she had been raped by a superior while she was in the military. McSally said she didn’t immediately report the attack, but when she did, she felt as if “the system was raping me all over again.”
Despite her thoughts about the system, McSally was also adamant that the military justice system should not be changed, taking away commanders’ authority to decide whether those accused of sexual assault will face trial. “The commander must not be removed from the decision-making responsibility of preventing, detecting and prosecuting military sexual assault,” she told her Senate colleagues.
In saying that, she may have killed or seriously delayed any possibility of structural change in the way the military services handle sexual assault charges. Advocates of change — led by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic presidential candidate — want commanders taken out of the prosecution path, with independent prosecutors evaluating the evidence and deciding whether to move ahead with charges in each case. Britain, Canada and New Zealand, among others, have adopted that system with good success.
Gillibrand said in a statement last week that, “The status quo is not working. It’s time for Congress to step up and bring accountability where the Department of Defense has repeatedly failed.”
It’s failing again, and we’ve seen the numbers that confirm it. It’s altogether clear that the system as it exists today isn’t working, McSally’s objections notwithstanding. This latest spike in assaults should be a last straw for Congress. It’s clear that the system needs big change, and it’s equally clear that the Pentagon isn’t up to the job. We hope the members of Congress are.