In May, the officer who ran the Air Force's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office was arrested for groping a woman in a parking lot. Ten days later, the Army announced it was investigating a sergeant who was responsible for handling cases of sexual assault at Fort Hood, Texas. These incidents occurred in the wake of a high-profile sexual assault case at Aviano Air Base in Italy and a sex-abuse scandal at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
Small wonder that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel promptly issued a directive to all services for a stand down on sexual assault prevention and response. Those involved in such work are to have their credentials and qualifications reviewed, and to undergo refresher training.
A week earlier, The American Legion issued its own response to the problem of military sexual assault (MSA). On May 9, our National Executive Committee passed Resolution No. 9, calling on Congress to pass a bill that would "prohibit convening authorities from dismissing or setting aside a finding of guilty" in MSA cases. It also urges the defense secretary to "order an independent review of convening authorities' powers to determine their appropriateness, relevancy and effectiveness in courts-martial proceedings."
Hagel's directive, along with new policies issued by DoD's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, are well-intentioned but don't go far enough. The temptation for convening authorities to countermand guilty verdicts needs to be eliminated in MSA cases. This is the best way for courts-martial to be free from meddling by misguided commanding officers or their representatives.
Beyond the Legion's calls to Congress and DoD for specific actions, our resolution also calls on the services to "dismantle any military culture that condones, tolerates or otherwise allows sexual assault among servicemembers as an acceptable form of behavior."
MSA statistics are staggering; to stand by as they worsen would be shameful. A recent Pentagon report estimated that 70 servicemembers are sexually assaulted every day. It also noted that approximately 26,000 MSAs took place in 2012 – a jump of about 35 percent since 2010.
What does it feel like for men or women to have to share the same dining hall, office or barracks with someone who has raped them? Tens of thousands of our veterans and servicemembers can tell you. This heinous trend must be stopped by decisive action and commitment that pays much more than lip service to the concept of "zero tolerance."
We agree with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey: MSA "betrays the trust on which our profession is founded." We also agree with Hagel, who warned that MSA endangers the military's ability to recruit and perform its mission. Any mindset that encourages or excuses such unspeakable acts must be rooted out and destroyed.
Most MSA victims are reluctant to press charges out of fear that their superiors will retaliate, their unit will ostracize them or investigators won't take their cases seriously.
They are left without justice.
The Pentagon must do whatever it takes to remove sexual assault from military culture. Zero tolerance is The American Legion's position.