Hagel: We will fix the MSA problem

In a May 17 Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel again pledged strong action against those who perpetrate and condone by inaction military sexual assault (MSA). Seated side by side with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, Hagel declared, “We’re going fix the problem (and) we’re going to fix it here.”

According to Hagel, finding a solution to the reportedly escalating problem of sexual criminality within the military will not be easy nor unilaterally accomplished. However, the defense chief indicated that commitment to finding a fix is universal within the group of top military leaders who met with President Obama the previous day.

“The military leaders in that room answered and responded – at the president’s invitation – (with) very honest evaluations about the issue and clearly articulated what they are all going to do and are doing to address it," Hagel said. “There wasn’t anybody in that room who wasn’t disappointed and embarrassed and didn’t recognize that we in many ways failed.  But, we all have committed to turn this around and we will fix the problem. There is not a military leader in that room who isn’t committed.”

Hagel also pointed to the proactive stance of Congress in their convening of an independent MSA study panel whose findings and recommendations both he and  Dempsey indicated would be key in addressing the crisis.

Accountability in the field, or lack thereof, is blamed as one of the causative factors in the mounting numbers of military sexual assaults. Hagel pledged to address that through a process of military culture change, beginning with the training or retraining of every service recruiter, per his directive of the day. The defense secretary also indicated that holding leadership accountable for finding a solution is critical. “It’s not good enough to say we have a zero tolerance policy,” he said. “We do, but what does that mean? How does that translate into changing anything?  I want to know.”

Hagel said he has instituted a series of personally chaired weekly briefs during which leaders must report real progress rather than utter platitudes.

“The emphasis on prevention especially important," Dempsey said of MSA. "As the president made clear to us yesterday, we can and must do more to change a culture that has become too complacent. Now is the time for us to commit ourselves to our profession. Now is the time for character to be valued as much, if not more, than competence. Now is the time for moral courage at every level. There can be no bystanders."

Dempsey likened the challenge presented by military sexual assault to struggles against racial discrimination and drug abuse he witnessed during the early years of his military career. “The Army was broken,” he said. “(But) with moral leadership and recommitment to professionalism, we changed that course, we restored trust in the ranks, and trust between us and the American people. Today, the joint force is not broken; in fact it is remarkably resilient...but we have a serious problem that we must solve: aggressive sexual behavior that rips at the bond of trust that binds us together. We must change course.”

In response to a reporter’s question, Hagel repeated an earlier assertion that alcohol use plays a significant causal role in MSA. “Alcohol (is) a very big factor in sexual assault,” Hagel said. “Not (in) every case, but in many cases. There’s no question it does.” 

Another reporter resurrected the topic of accountability. Many assault victims have complained of laxity in prosecution of sex criminals in the military with favoritism shown to some defendants. “You might argue that we’ve become a little too forgiving because if a perpetrator shows up in a court martial with a rack of ribbons and has four deployments and a Purple Heart, there is certainly the risk that we might be a little too forgiving of that particular crime," Dempsey said.

Both Hagel and Dempsey alluded to the many pieces of anti-MSA legislation just introduced into the House and Senate; at least10 in all. The most recent of them was the “Military Justice Improvement Act” of May 16. A reporter queried the pair’s views on one provision of the proposed law that would remove prosecution of sexual assault cases from the accused’s chain of command in favor of an outside prosecutor. While neither the defense secretary nor the general addressed the question directly, Dempsey did say, “Some of these congressional proposals could be game changers. And so we want to make sure, as the secretary said, that as we take a look at the proposals we understand how they fit together and more importantly what are the second and third order effects (because) in our system, we give a commander life and death decision-making authority. I can’t imagine going forward in solving this issue without commanders involved.”

Hagel said he has been talking with members of the House and Senate about their legislative proposals and will continue to do so. “(We are) not taking any position on any bill,” he said. “We are looking for components of every bill to see what makes sense.” 

The defense secretary said he is also conferring with leaders of overseas military forces in an attempt to assemble a collection of best practices based on the handling of sexual assault cases within their services.