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August 21, 2014

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Rape and America’s military injustice

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Along with a boosted Buick LeSabre, another incident listed on a crime report Sunday in Arlington County, Va., was a creepy attack by a man on a woman.

“On May 5 at 12:35 a.m., a drunken male subject approached a female victim in a parking lot and grabbed her breasts and buttocks,” the report read. “The victim fought the suspect off as he attempted to touch her again and alerted police. Jeffrey Krusinski, 41, of Arlington, Va., was arrested and charged with sexual battery.”

Krusinski’s mug shot, showing scarlet scratches on his face, is a portrait in misery.

He knew his arrest on charges of groping a stranger would send the capital reeling and his career at the nearby Pentagon spiraling. The Air Force lieutenant colonel charged with sexual battery was the officer in charge of sexual assault prevention programs for the Air Force. (He had just finished his sexual assault victim training.)

There was a fox-in-the-henhouse echo of Clarence Thomas, who Anita Hill said sexually harassed her when he was the nation’s top enforcer of laws against workplace sexual harassment.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller issued a white-hot statement, calling Krusinski’s arrest “further evidence that the military isn’t taking the issue of sexual assault seriously,” and “a stain on the military” that “should shake us to our core.”

President Barack Obama was also lacerating on the subject of the Krusinski arrest and the cases of two Air Force lieutenant generals who set aside sexual assault convictions after jury trials.

He said training and awareness programs masking indifference will no longer stand: “If we find out somebody’s engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable, prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged — period.”

It has been a bad week for the hidebound defenders of a hopelessly antiquated military justice system that views prosecution decisions in all cases, including rape and sexual assault, as the private preserve of commanders rather than lawyers.

“They are dying a thousand deaths,” said Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School. CAAFlog, the leading military justice blog, called it “the death knell” for the current system, at least for sexual assault cases.

During the Thomas-Hill hearings, many powerful men here — even ones defending Hill publicly — privately assumed that she was somehow complicit in encouraging Thomas’ vulgar behavior. Feminists ranted “they just don’t get it” so often that it became a grating cliche.

Yet, 22 years later, during another Senate hearing Tuesday where the topic of sexual transgression flared, it became clear that, as California congresswoman Jackie Speier told me afterward, “people in authority just don’t get it.”

Gen. Mark Welsh, the chief of staff for the Air Force, shocked the women on the Senate Armed Services Committee when he testified that part of the problem in combatting “The Invisible War,” as the Oscar-nominated documentary feature on the epidemic of rape in the military was titled, is that young women who enter the military have been raised in a society with a “hook-up mentality.”

“We have got to change the culture once they arrive,” the general said.

Hook-ups might be stupid, but they are consensual.

“To dismiss violent rapes as part of the hook-up culture shows a complete lack of understanding,” a fiery Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York told me. “We’re not talking about a date gone badly. We’re talking about criminal behavior by predators who often stalk their victims in advance.”

The hook-up comparison was especially jarring in light of the release of a stunning Pentagon study estimating that 26,000 men and women in the military were sexually assaulted in the 2012 fiscal year, a 37 percent increase from the same period the year before. Only a small number of incidents — 3,374 — were reported, showing that victims are still afraid of payback or perverted justice. And a mere 238 assailants were convicted.

Wired.com reported that troops at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina were issued a brochure advising potential victims of sexual assault that it might be more “advisable to submit than resist.”

It was the sort of rare confluence of events that can actually lead to change here, especially because it’s a nonpartisan issue and because the Senate looks very different than it did during the Thomas-Hill hearings. Three of the six Senate Armed Services subcommittees are now led by women.

Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a former prosecutor who is one of seven women (five of them lawyers) on the Armed Services Committee, has held up the nomination of Lt. Gen. Susan Helms to be vice commander of the Air Force’s Space Command until she investigates why Helms overturned a conviction in a sexual assault case.

“You don’t get to decide who’s telling the truth and supplant the judgment of the jury you handpicked if you weren’t in the courtroom observing the witnesses,” McCaskill said. “You’ve got to put systems in place where you catch these cowards committing crimes and you put them in prison.”

The military brass cossetting predators are on notice. The women of Congress are on the case.

Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times.

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  1. When the top military generals abandon their principles to the country and their soldiers, what can you expect from their followers? Leadership at the top breeds leaders in the rank and file. Lack of leadership at the top produces lack of leadership in the rank and file.

    Carmine D