President Barack Obama said Tuesday that the Pentagon's new efforts to combat a troubling rise in sexual assaults must include "consequences."
"I don't just want speeches or awareness programs or training, but ultimately folks look the other way," he said in a joint press conference Tuesday with South Korean President Park Geun-hye. He expects to see tangible results from a new eight-step process Defense Secretary Hagel unveiled Tuesday, including courts martial, dishonorable discharges and prosecutions.
Now the military is left with finding solutions amid a 34 percent rise in sexual assaults, but almost no movement in the number of official reports. "There needs to be an acknowledgement from the top all the way down that this is a pervasive problem in the military, that this is an epidemic," says Tom Tarantino, an Army veteran and policy advocate for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "If you put it in those terms, service members will begin to get it."
"This is the first step in rebuilding the culture," he says.
Hagel said Tuesday that new efforts to combat sexual assault must begin at the command level.
"The ultimate authority has to remain within the command structure," he told reporters at the Pentagon. "Taking the ultimate responsibility away from the military would weaken the system."
Tarantino commanded a platoon from the Army's 11th Cavalry Regiment in Iraq, before leaving the service as a captain in 2007. He said Army training instills its leaders with a wide variety of skills, but falls short of mitigating and following up on sexual assaults.
"I knew everything about cleaning a rifle," he says as an example. "I knew very little about resiliency and positive mental health steps."
He also points to a broken system for victims of sexual assault to receive benefits after they have left the military. The military currently requires veterans to prove through extensive paperwork that a sexual assault that took place while in the service is connected to post-traumatic stress. This process can take years, Tarantino adds.
So his organization is working to promote the Ruth More Act introduced in February that would abbreviate this process for sexual assault victims.
The military has a long way to go in teaching young officers not just about awareness of sexual assault but also mental health, Tarantino says. The true test will be in determining how awareness of this issue and a change in military culture seeps into the enlisted and officer education systems.
But another advocate for traumatized veterans says training among commanders is only the first step.
"The problem is you're giving this authority to the wrong people," says Greg Jacob, a 10-year Marine Corps infantry veteran who served in both the enlisted and officer ranks. He is now the policy director for the Service Women's Action Network.
"Commanders aren't legal professionals," he says, adding his experience as a combat commander that made it very difficult to make impartial decisions about the troops he oversaw.
"The training [Hagel is] talking about is specifically sexual assault training, which doesn't give them the legal experience and the legal know-how for them to make a legal decision," he says. Any G.I. could receive advanced preventative medicine training, Jacob offers as an example, but that doesn't make him or her a doctor.
The military can't "train its way out of this," he says. "It has to address the systematic problems that arise" from a legal system that isn't run by trained professionals.
The Air Force has received significant negative attention in recent weeks following two reported instances in which a commanding general, while acting as the "convening authority," dismissed guilty verdicts against airmen accused of sexual assault.
SWAN advocates for "professionalizing the system," in the same way that cases in civilian courts are prosecuted by a district attorney. This would involve a literal act of Congress to change the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which governs the military's rules and regulations. Its process for legal proceedings is archaic and was created at a time when military lawyers were not as prolific on the battlefield as they are today, Jacob says.
Corrected 06/12/13: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of South Korean President Park Geun-hye.