America’s top general has admitted the country’s military is facing a “crisis” after a series of sexual abuse cases in the ranks. President Barack Obama summoned US military commanders to the White House to address the cases, as members of Congress tabled draft legislation to reform the way sexual assault cases are handled at the Pentagon.
“We’re losing the confidence of the women who serve that we can solve this problem,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, conceded to reporters on a flight from Europe to Washington. “That’s a crisis. We should be better than this. In fact, we have to be better than this.”
Latest data issued by the Defence Department shows that 26,000 people in the military suffered sexual assaults, including rape, in the past year, up from 19,000 the year before. While attention may be focused first on female victims, in just over half the cases those assaulted or raped were men.
Outrage has been fanned by revelations over recent days that two members of the military assigned to lead sexual assault prevention programmes had themselves been arrested on suspicion of assault. An air force officer has been arrested on charges of groping a woman in a car park in Virginia, and an army sergeant in Texas is in custody on charges relating to three women, one of whom he may have pimped out for prostitution.
On Capitol Hill, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, put forward a draft bill that would break the usual chain of command inside the military for cases of sexual abuse, taking responsibility for the decision on the way they are handled away from commanders and giving them instead to lower-rank officers with special training on the prosecution of criminal offences.
The Pentagon has been resistant to the changes sought in the draft law, but the scope of the problem today may mean it will be given little choice.