Obama Vows Action After Air Force Officer Assault Arrest

President Barack Obama vowed to “exponentially step up our game” to combat military sexual assaults after the Air Force’s top officer for sexual-assault prevention was arrested on charges of sexual battery.

As the Pentagon today estimated there were 26,000 sexual assaults in the armed services last year, a 35 percent increase from two years ago, Obama promised at a White House news conference to “do everything we can to root this out.”

Violators should be “prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged,” the president said. “Period.”

Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Krusinski, 41, was arrested on May 5 in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Virginia, where he allegedly “approached a female victim in a parking lot and grabbed her breasts and buttocks,” according to an Arlington County police report. Efforts to locate Krusinski for comment weren’t successful.

“We’re all outraged and disgusted over these very troubling allegations,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said at a Pentagon news conference, where he announced a series of measures that he said would help combat the problem.

Hagel said he would hold military commanders accountable “at every level,” improve the treatment of assault victims and conduct regular inspections of military workplaces to guard against “materials that create a degrading and offensive work environment.”

Legislation Sought

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers used a hearing today to promise new legislation, from providing better counsel to victims to prosecuting sexual-assault cases outside of the military chain of command.

Krusinski’s arrest in the Washington suburb where the Pentagon is located provides ‘dramatic evidence of the need for the Department of Defense to act swiftly and decisively to address the plague of sexual assaults in the military,’’ Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said today at a hearing he held with Air Force leaders.

The Krusinski case gave added urgency and attention to the release today of the Pentagon’s report on sexual assaults, an event that each year prompts criticism from lawmakers and victims’ advocacy groups and pledges by the Pentagon to do better.

Anonymous Survey

An anonymous survey of active-duty troops found that 26,000 reported experiencing unwanted sexual conduct last year, amounting to an average of 71 incidents per day. A survey two years earlier estimated 19,300 such incidents. In 2006, the only other time the survey was conducted, there were an estimated 34,200 incidents.

About 6.1 percent of active-duty women and 1.2 percent of active-duty men surveyed said they experienced unwanted sexual contact within the previous 12 months.

Those estimates dwarf the number of cases reported each year. Victims have said they’re afraid of coming forward, partly because they feared a risk their career.

There were 3,374 reported cases of assault in 2012, a 5.7 percent increase from the previous year, according to the Pentagon.

“This report tells us we’ve got more work to do,” said Major General Gary Patton, director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.

Chain of Command

Figuring out what to do quickly became a divisive issue today.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said she will push to prosecute sexual assault cases outside the military’s chain of command so that victims will feel more free to come forward.

Such a move would “create real accountability for assailants and justice for victims,” Gillibrand said in a statement.

Hagel resisted that idea, saying, “The ultimate authority has to remain within the command structure.”

Senators Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, and Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, introduced legislation that they said would make it easier to prosecute assault cases. It includes a procedure already used by the Air Force to provide a Special Victims’ Counsel who can assist assault victims throughout the legal process.

Levin, the committee chairman, said he plans to include legislation on sexual assault as part of this year’s annual defense authorization bill, as early as next month.

Posted Bond

Krusinski, who had served as chief of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response branch since February, was removed from the job pending an investigation, according to an Air Force statement. He was released after posting a $5,000 bond, according to Dustin Sternbeck, an Arlington County police spokesman.

“It is unacceptable that this occurs anywhere at any time in our Air Force and we will not quit working on this problem,” General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said today at Levin’s hearing.

Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, a victim-support group, said in a statement that Krusinski’s arrest “is one more example on a long list of how fundamentally broken the military justice system and culture are.”

Lackland Case

The Air Force is still reeling from a scandal in which at least five military instructors were convicted of sexual assaults or unprofessional relationships with trainees or students at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

An investigation of the Lackland case identified 23 alleged offenders and 48 alleged victims.

Hagel last month proposed barring military commanders from overturning court-martial convictions of sexual assault and other major crimes.

The proposal, which requires legislation from Congress, follows lawmakers’ protests over a case at Aviano Air Base in Italy, where an aggravated sexual-assault conviction in a court-martial last year was overturned by Air Force Lieutenant General Craig Franklin, the so-called convening authority who oversaw the case.

Franklin’s decision fueled debate about whether the military acts forcefully enough to prosecute wrongdoing.

In a potentially similar case, Air Force Lieutenant General Susan Helms, selected to become vice commander of the Air Force’s Space Command, had her nomination blocked by Senator Claire McCaskill, a member of the Armed Services Committee.

McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, wants to examine Helms’s previously unpublicized decision to overturn an aggravated sexual-assault conviction for a captain at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Welsh confirmed the reversal at today’s hearing, saying Helms didn’t think the evidence to reach the verdict met the “burden of reasonable doubt.”

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