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Ending a Culture of Military Sexual Assault

This past week, the true extent of the problem of rape and sexual assault in the military came to light, and the numbers were stark and ugly. A new Pentagon report found that nearly 26,000 members of the military were sexually assaulted last year — a 35% increase from 2010. The numbers sent shock waves everywhere, prompting furious editorials from major papers and a particularly angry-sounding President Obama at a press conference saying, “I have zero tolerance for this,” and vowing a top-down culture change.

Easier said than done, of course. The Los Angeles Times editorial board notes the deepest irony in the case, which is that a major point person in the military was caught, so to speak, with his pants down.

The news was alarming but perhaps not all that surprising. Not after the revelation just a few days earlier that Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, the chief of the Air Force sexual assault prevention branch, had himself been arrested on suspicion of drunkenly groping a woman outside a bar near the Pentagon. If the officer who’s supposed to be leading the charge against sexual assault has actually engaged in the practice in his free time, then clearly the military has a profound problem.

A problem that can’t be fixed with more talking and training.

The Forward has covered systemic abuse in Jewish schools, synagogues and ultra-Orthodox communities, and of course anyone who’s been alive this decade is aware of the abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. The military scandal is as far-reaching and systemic as the latter. It makes sense. In a way, the military shares characteristics with a religious hierarchy — a reverence for authority, adherence to certain kinds of dogma, an assumption of sacredness of purpose and a “higher calling.” This creates a code of silence and makes it harder to speak out, particularly when, in Krusinski’s case and many others, the person you should be speaking out to is a perpetrator himself.

But in other ways, this situation is different from the scandals in religious communities and institutions. Children aren’t being abused so much as peers — peers who spend day in and day out and go into high-pressure situations with their assailants, allegedly side-by-side as comrades. This close contact with one’s assailant can lead to depression and PTSD, among other problems — and it’s worsened when there’s no one there to pursue your cause.

That’s why a group of mostly female lawmakers and advocates are pushing hard to remove commanding officers of their current ability to supersede jury convictions of military sexual assaults, which as the AP video below shows, is a “non-starter” to the Pentagon.

Let’s make it a “starter.” The military culture isn’t immune from an overall rape culture that punishes victims and protects perpetrators. Even those of us who are totally removed from the military in our own lives need to step up and speak out to ensure that survivors get the justice and closure they deserve, free from intimidation.

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