America's top defense official announced Tuesday a new plan to combat sexual assaults in the U.S. military, saying reports of improper sexual contact by troops have increased more than 35 percent in the last two years.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's press conference on the "FY2012 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military" came less than 24 hours after the Air Force's head of sexual assault prevention was arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman in a parking lot near the Pentagon.
"We're particularly disappointed because this alleged incident occurred here, at the headquarters, the heart and the main leadership of our institution," Hagel said of reports that Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, the former head of the Air Force's sexual assault prevention and response branch, had grabbed a woman's breasts and buttocks in an Arlington, Va., parking lot early Sunday morning. He has subsequently been removed from that position pending an investigation.
"No one in this building is happy about what happened. We're disappointed, but that doesn't fix the problem," Hagel said. "Our men and women around the world who give themselves and their families certainly must expect more, and deserve more."
The report released Tuesday shows an estimated 6.1 percent of active duty women and 1.2 percent of active duty men were victimized by unwanted sexual contact, based on a new biannual survey conducted in 2012. This amounts to roughly 12,000 women who were assaulted and 14,000 men. This total of 26,000 is roughly a 34 percent increase from 2010, when an estimated 19,300 experienced assaults.
Hagel outlined eight initiatives the Pentagon will use to combat this incidence of sexual assaults, chiefly holding military commanders responsible.
"It is my strong belief, and I think others' on Capitol Hill and within our institution … that the ultimate authority has to remain within the command structure," Hagel said.
"What's going on is just not acceptable," he added. "Taking the ultimate responsibility away from the military would weaken the system."
Department of Defense leadership has "no higher priority than the safety and welfare of the men and women in uniform," which includes preventing sexual assaults, said Hagel.
The director of the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office detailed in remarks following Hagel's that the rise in reports of sexual assaults could also be due to troops feeling more comfortable publicly acknowledging these incidents.
Potential retaliation from peers and commanders is "a huge barrier for reporting," said Army Maj. Gen. Gary Patton.
"When people choose to be undisciplined … they need to have the tools and authorities to address that," Patton said.
The Pentagon press conference came moments after President Barack Obama delivered public remarks with South Korean President Park Guen-hye. He lambasted those who wear a military uniform and sexually assault others.
"They may consider themselves patriots, but when they engage in this behavior, it's not patriotic, it's a crime," he said. " Up and down the chain [of command], we are seeing a process of transparency so we can root his problem out completely."
"I expect consequences," he added. "I don't just want speeches or awareness programs or training, but ultimately folks look the other way."
Those who have conducted sexual assaults should be prosecuted, stripped of their position, court martialed, fired or dishonorably discharged, he said.
Other initiatives Hagel announced Tuesday include reforms to Article 60 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, barring a convening authority from overruling court martial findings except in extreme cases in which they would have to document their reasoning in writing.
All Department of Defense workplaces, including the service academies, will have until July 1 to adhere to new "comprehensive and visual inspections" ensuring there are no threatening materials present that degrade an "environment of dignity and respect."