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U.S. military has good reputation, but sex assaults undermining it

May 9, 2013 - The Kansas City Star

For those who step up to serve the nation in uniform, a country hopes for the best: sound training, honorable practices, cohesive units and a brother/sister-in-arms family.

Most of the time, that's exactly what our military services deliver.

Today, however, we know part of the military family is suffering in silence: An anonymous survey revealed an astonishing 26,000 sexual assaults last year, much worse than the 19,000 in 2010. And, as in civilian life, the actual number of assaults reported to authorities is far less.

Embarrassment, fear of retribution, and a lack of confidence in justice contribute to a shocking number of unreported and unpunished abuses.

Timing matters. As if 70 sexual assaults a day isn't sickening enough, the nation also learned the Air Force lieutenant colonel in charge of sexual assault prevention was himself charged with groping a woman last weekend.

Pronouncements about better training won't suffice. Victims need to know that reporting assaults won't derail careers, that punishments including prison and ouster from the military await offenders, and that arcane rules will be amended to prevent commanders from tossing aside military jury convictions.

In this instance, the record number of women in the U.S. Senate matter. The Senate Armed Services Committee has seven women members, including Missouri's Sen. Claire McCaskill, who are calling for major reforms.

McCaskill earlier this year challenged Pentagon leaders to figure out better ways to stop the violence. For starters, she wants the military to end the ability of a commander to overturn a jury conviction. Two such incidents are now exposed, and McCaskill recently put a hold on a promotion of one woman commander who cleared a convicted abuser.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday condemned the injustice, labeling the assaults an "outrage." Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel should be held responsible for assuring victims that there will be safer, independent ways to adjudicate cases outside one's chain of command and new toughness in penalties. Women and men in arms deserve nothing less.

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