Sexual assault in the military

Members of the armed services in the last two years have seen sexual assault in their midst increase at an alarming rate. More than 26,000 military members reported having been sexually assaulted in the last year, up from 19,600 in 2010. That amounts to a 35 percent increase and demands immediate action. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel responded appropriately to the Pentagon’s findings and announced Tuesday a series of steps the military must take to counter this troubling trend.

The orders seem almost obvious, but the fact that Hagel must make them explicit, coupled with the jaw-dropping sexual-assault numbers the Pentagon released, suggests that there is a significant cultural shift that must take place in the military. Hagel’s mandates will begin that process, but there clearly is a long road to travel in order that the armed forces become a safer place for its members.

Hagel prioritizes accountability among commanders for responding to sexual-assault reports appropriately acknowledges that need to use the military hierarchy to create a climate of safety. His statements this week, in response to the Pentagon’s findings as well to reports of sexual misconduct from a lieutenant colonel who works for the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, have been clear: “It is an affront to the American values we defend, and it is a stain on our honor,” Hagel said. “(The Department of Defense) 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.”

There is no mincing of words, nor should there be. The fact that there has been so dramatic an increase in what already were a high number of sexual-assault incidents demands a sea change in how the military operates. Ensuring, as Hagel intends, that the military workplace is not one rife with inappropriate, degrading or offensive material and that armed forces recruitment and training includes sex assault-prevention messages is critical to that change. So, too, is improved victim response and services.

Creating an environment where reporting sexual assault is perceived as safe is key, as is providing victims the support they need in the wake of an assault. The response to these numbers – and the culture they indicate exists – must be strong, swift and unequivocal. The U.S. military cannot be a place where its own members do not feel safe – indeed, are not safe – and Hagel rightly sees that there is a glaring problem that must be remedied immediately.

The command structure is in place to change the culture that allowed such a problem to develop and those at the top – beginning with Hagel – must pass along to their subordinates an entirely new ethic that counters the status quo. It is shocking that the problem has reached such levels, and Hagel has acted with appropriate speed in responding to it. The effort must be sustained to success.

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