(WASHINGTON) — The growing problem of sexual assault in the armed forces could threaten the military’s ability to do its job and to recruit strong candidates to serve their country, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday.
The issue took center stage in Washington after the arrest of the officer who ran the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention office on a sexual battery charge was confirmed Monday, a day before the Pentagon released a report that found sexual assaults in the military have risen six percent.
The arrest this past weekend in Arlington, Va., of Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, who headed the Air Force’s office of sexual assault prevention, sparked outrage about the military’s response to sexual assault among service members. He was removed from his post on Monday after the Air Force found out about his arrest.
“We’re all outraged and disgusted” by the news of Krusinski’s arrest, Hagel told reporters Tuesday as the Pentagon released the report on sexual assaults.
“No one in this building is happy,” Hagel said. “We’re disappointed.”
The report details a six-percent increase in 2012 in the number of reports of sexual assault involving active-duty service members as either victims or subjects.
Hagel said the frequency of sexual assaults in the military and the perception of its tolerance “could very well undermine our ability to effectively carry out the mission and to recruit and retain the good people we need.”
“We need cultural change, where every service member is treated with dignity and respect, where all allegations of inappropriate behavior are treated with seriousness, where victims’ privacy is protected, where bystanders are motivated to intervene and where offenders know that they will be held accountable by strong and effective systems of justice,” Hagel said.
According to the report, there were a total of 3,374 reports of sexual assaults involving service members as either victims or subjects, and of those 2,558 were investigated or prosecuted. These reports involved offenses ranging from rape to abusive sexual contact.
That figure was up from the 3,192 reports received in 2011. The overall increase in reporting was due to a 30-percent jump in reports from the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force; the Army saw a 16-perecent decrease in reports.
At a White House news conference President Obama made clear that he has “no tolerance” for sexual assault in the military and said perpetrators are “betraying the uniform that they’re wearing.”
“They may consider themselves patriots, but when you engage in this kind of behavior, that’s not patriotic; it’s a crime. And we have to do everything we can to root this out,” he said.
“I expect consequences,” he said. “I don’t want just more speeches or, you know, awareness programs or training, but ultimately folks look the other way. If we find out somebody’s engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable, prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged — period. It’s not acceptable.”
The president said he had spoken with Hagel, telling him that “we have to exponentially step up our game to go at this thing hard.”
On Capitol Hill, senators called sexual assault in the military a “plague” and blasted the Air Force for not making enough progress in remedying the problem.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was “terribly disappointed” that the military is not doing a better job to prevent sexual assault.
“It appears to me we’re going to have to change the mindset of the military,” Reid said.
Krusinski’s arrest gave new fire to senators calling for the Department of Defense to act “swiftly and decisively” to address the problem of sexual assault in the military — including from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley and Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh III, at times yelled openly at the two Air Force witnesses over this case and the broader problem.
“The man in charge for the Air Force in preventing sexual assault is being alleged to have committed a sexual assault this weekend,” Sen. Gillibrand yelled. “Obviously there’s a failing in training and understanding of what sexual assault is and how corrosive and damaging it is to good order and discipline and how it is undermining the credibility of the greatest military force in the world. This is not good enough.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who will block the promotion of another Air Force general who has pardoned an officer convicted of aggravate sexual assault, said she expects the person who hired Krusinski in the first place to be held to a higher standard on the hiring of his replacement.
“This was not someone who understood what this job was about,” McCaskill said. “And I will be watching very carefully who is selected to replace Lt. Col. Kruinski, because I think it is one of those times you’re going to be able to send a message, and I think it’s important you do it.”
Senators Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Tuesday introduced the Combating Military Sexual Assault Act of 2013, which they said will address gaps in the system.
Reid said he believes these are “steps in the right direction.”
“If there is legislation that needs to be done, which I’m quite sure there probably is, we need to move it out as quickly as we can,” Reid said.
Krusinski is expected to be arraigned on Thursday.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Don Melvin, Joshua Berlinger and Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN Newswire
Natalia Hepworth, EastIdahoNews.com