WASHINGTON — One after another, the charges have tumbled out — allegations of sexual assaults in the military that have triggered outrage, from local commanders to Capitol Hill and the Oval Office.
But for a Pentagon under fire, there seem to be few clear solutions beyond improved training and possible adjustments in how the military prosecutes such crimes. Changing the culture of a male-dominated, change-resistant military that for years has tolerated sexism and sexist behavior is proving to be a challenging task.
“Members of the Hill, people in the department and the American people have the right to be outraged,” Pentagon press secretary George Little said on Wednesday, adding that the military “must hold ourselves to a higher standard.”
As new sexual assault allegations emerged this week involving an Army soldier who was assigned to prevent such crimes — the second military member involved in similar accusations — the Pentagon said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is working on a written directive to spell out steps aimed at resolving the escalating problem.
But President Obama, fuming at a news conference last week, warned that he wanted swift and sure action, not “just more speeches or awareness programs or training.” Sexual offenders need to be “prosecuted, stripped of their position, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period,” he said.
“The president has made very clear his expectations on this issue,” Little said, adding that Hagel told Obama on Tuesday about an Army sergeant first class at Fort Hood, Texas, who faces allegations of sexual misconduct. The case involves the soldier’s activities with three women, including an allegation that he may have arranged for one of them to have sex for money, according to a defense official.
Those allegations come on the heels of a Pentagon report last week that estimated that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, based on survey results, out of 1.4 million in the services.
That report, and a recent series of arrests and other sexual assault problems across the military, have triggered a rush of initiatives from the Pentagon and proposed legislation on Capitol Hill.
But experts warn that stemming an increase in assaults will require concrete changes — both in law and in military culture.
“There is not a quick fix,” said Anu Bhagwati, former Marine captain and executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network. “The military can’t train its way out of this problem.”
She said that changing the prosecution system is critical, but victims also have to be convinced that they won’t be punished if they come forward.