The Roots of Sexual Abuse in the Military

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U.S. President Barack Obama met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odienaro, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey at the White House in Washington D.C., on May 16, 2013.

Even before the Army confirmed a third military sexual-assault preventer had been implicated in sexual harassment in the past two weeks late Thursday – the charges ranged from sexual battery, to pandering, to stalking an ex-wife – the Army’s top general, and the commander-in chief, said they’ve had enough.

Late Thursday, the Army said Lieut. Colonel Darin Haas, chief of the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Prevention/Equal Opportunity program manager at Fort Campbell, Ky., has been booted from that post following a dispute with his ex-wife. Local police arrested Haas Wednesday night and charged him with stalking her and sending threatening emails in violation of a court-issued protective order.

Sexual assault in the ranks “is going to make — and has made — the military less effective than it can be,” President Obama said at a meeting of the nation’s military leaders to focus on the issue. “It is dangerous to our national security.”

Only hours earlier, General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, fired a volley at his troops on the subject. “The Army is failing in its efforts to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment,” Odierno said in a written message. “It is up to every one of us, civilian and Soldier, general officer to private, to solve this problem within our ranks.”

The Pentagon is scrambling to try to turn the situation around, but there is a growing sense in the building that the series of scandals is beyond the military’s control. Defense officials desperately want the string of bad news to stop, but – like IEDs in Afghanistan – the chance of the next one blowing up is equal parts action and wishful thinking.

Like the military’s ongoing challenge of suicide in the ranks, there is no single fix. There’s synergy at work here, defense officials suggest privately, and Obama agreed. “There is no silver bullet to solving this problem,” the President said Thursday. “This is going to require a sustained effort over a long period of time.”

Nothing excuses sexual abuse, of course, but several things may help to explain it, U.S. military officers and veterans suggest:

— After a decade of combat, and the latest round of austerity imposed by sequester-mandated budget cuts, the troops are frayed. Nerves are on edge, drinking is exacerbating the problem, and peacetime cushions are shot.

“I tasked those around me to help me understand what a decade-plus of conflict may have done to the force,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said Tuesday of the wars’ impact on sexual assault in the ranks. “Instinctively, I knew it had to have some effect.”

— Women are currently about 14% of the active-duty, and have been at that level for years. Their presence takes jobs – and promotions – away from some of their male colleagues. Like gravity, that exerts a subtle influence on those who feel they may have been passed over, or fear they maybe – or have a buddy who feels that way. Differences in rank can compound the problem, as senior males used to issuing orders flex that command authority and take advantage of their power in their illicit dealings with female subordinates.

— While women in uniform who have been abused remain leery of reporting it, that reticence is shrinking. That’s happening, in part, as women gain clout in Congress. They currently occupy 78 of the House’s 435 seats, and 20 of the 100 Senate seats.

While still a distinct minority, women on Capitol Hill have reached a breaking-through point where there are enough of them so that they no longer will be cowed into silence by their male colleagues – or the men in uniform who regularly troop before them to testify on military matters.

“It’s a very broad-based problem, and it’s not a new problem,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a member of the armed services committee who has been pushing to prosecute alleged military sexual assaulters outside their chain of command. Women are afraid, Gillibrand said, to come forward and report when they have been assaulted. “If we can begin to create accountability and transparency in the system where victims see that justice is possible, you’ll have greater reporting,” she told CBS. “When you have greater reporting, it means you’ll have more investigations, more trials and more convictions. And so as they see justice being done, I think things will change.”

— The kings of the military are those who wage war. Every other branch – logistics, legal, medical, public affairs, human resources — is a supporting player.

Generally, those tapped by the military services to combat the scourge of sexual harassment are runners-up in the competition for battlefield command, or never were in the running. They are good, and performing valuable work, but they are not the military’s fast-burners. “For years, the services have been dumping non-performers into EO [Equal Opportunity] and sexual harassment billets,” Tom Ricks says over at Best Defense. “In other words, they weren’t taking this stuff that seriously.”

The troops know it, and respond accordingly.

Obama and Odierno said Thursday that the problem has become so pervasive and corrosive that consigning it to also-rans is no longer acceptable.

Obama said curbing sexual assault in the ranks will require “putting our best people on this challenge.” Odierno said “it is time we take on the fight against sexual assault and sexual harassment as our primary mission.”

If that happens, it will represent a profound change. It means the military’s “primary mission” will no longer be preparing to wage, and win, the nation’s wars.