Together We Are Not Invisible
This week's news that Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, the head of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program, was arrested for…sexual assault…leaves us speechless. Add that to troubling new numbers in a Pentagon report that estimates up to 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, and it’s understandable that President Barack Obama is taking an aggressive stand:
“For those who are in uniform who have experienced sexual assault, I want them to hear directly from their Commander-In-Chief that I've got their backs,” he said earlier this week. “I will support them. And we're not going to tolerate this stuff and there will be accountability. If people have engaged in this behavior, they should be prosecuted."
Thanks to public outcry resulting from the 2012 release of the award-winning documentary The Invisible War, as well as the Lackland Air Force Base scandal, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta introduced new initiatives in the spring of 2012. (Although many survivors and activists have cast them as unsatisfactory) Secretary Chuck Hagel has picked up where Panetta left off, but it’s obvious that this problem is severe when it touches the Air Force leader who should be enforcing its prevention and response.
Congress has passed policies to tackle the issue in the past but the problem persists. As the Government Accountability Office has found, the Department of Defense has failed to implement laws passed by Congress such as a mandate to retain uniform, comprehensive records of cases for 50 years. Still, some believe that change is slow but taking shape.
Secretary Hagel recently asked Congress to change military law to eliminate the power of senior commanders to alter verdicts for serious crimes such as sexual assault and murder. And, in a small victory, survivors will no longer have to disclose counseling they receive due to their assaults on security clearance forms thanks to internal policy changes at the Department. This required disclosure used to disqualify survivors from attaining many jobs across government, not just within the military.
Unlike most issues, ending military sexual assault tends to garner bipartisan support in Congress. Members of Congress cannot, however, agree on whether or not to support taking prosecution out of the chain of command. There does seem to be consensus that officers should not alter court-martial convictions, as the Washington Post reports: Representatives Mike Turner (R-Ohio) and Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) are proposing stripping an officer’s authority to change or dismiss a court-martial conviction in major cases, such as sexual assault. Their bill would also require that an individual found guilty of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy and an attempt to commit any of those offenses be either dismissed or dishonorably discharged.
We wholeheartedly agree with this position, especially given a recent incident where an Air Force officer overturned a jury’s guilty verdict in a sexual assault case. Such action gives survivors no sense of protection, trust, or recourse, and is likely why so many women and men choose not to report abuse.
We will keep pushing for more comprehensive and effective change from the Pentagon to individual military units stationed around the world. Furthermore, we look forward to the legislative action that Representatives Turner and Tsongas are proposing and urge you to call your member of Congress to ask them to support the measures as well. Together we are not invisible.