The U.S. military has stepped up investigations of high-ranking officers for sexual assault, records show, curtailing its traditional deference toward senior leaders as it cracks down on sex crimes.
Since September, the armed forces have court-martialed or filed sexual-assault charges against four colonels from the Air Force, Army and Marines. In addition, a Navy captain was found guilty of abusive sexual contact during an administrative hearing.
Historically, it has been extremely rare for senior military officers to face courts-martial. Leaders suspected of wrongdoing are usually dealt with behind the scenes, with offenders receiving private reprimands or removal from command with a minimum of public explanation.
“There’s not a lot of transparency when it comes to senior-officer misconduct,” said Don Christensen, a former chief prosecutor for the Air Force who now is president of Protect Our Defenders, a group that advocates for victims of sex crimes in the military. “They don’t like the American public knowing what’s going on, so they drag their heels in getting information out.”
That has gradually changed as the Defense Department – under pressure from Congress and the White House – has revamped its policies to prevent sexual assault and to hold perpetrators accountable.
During the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 116 officers of all stripes were court-martialed, discharged or received some sort of punishment after they were criminally investigated for sexual assault. That was more than double the number from three years earlier, according to Defense Department figures.
Of last year’s cases, eight were against senior officers holding a rank equivalent to colonel or Navy captain or higher. While that figure may seem small, it represented a fourfold increase from 2012.
Overall, the vast majority of troops investigated for sexual assault are enlisted personnel, who accounted for 94 percent of all cases last year. In the active-duty military, enlisted troops outnumber officers by a ratio of 4.6 to 1.
But high-ranking leaders are finding they no are longer off-limits as allegations of cringe-worthy behavior increasingly come to light in military courtrooms and public records.
This month, during a court-martial at Fort McNair in Washington, an Army colonel who worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a 15-year-old girl and taking photos of her nude. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.
In February, the Marine Corps charged the commander of its Wounded Warrior Regiment with sexually assaulting a female corporal, violating protective orders and other misconduct.
In January, at a disciplinary hearing, the Navy found the former captain of a guided missile cruiser guilty of abusive sexual contact and sexual harassment. An investigative report chronicled in embarrassing detail how he got drunk with crew members at a Virginia bar and brazenly pressured a junior officer to have sex with him to advance her career.
In December, the Air Force charged a colonel at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado with raping or assaulting four victims, committing adultery with four other women, and taking photographs of himself in uniform at his office – with his genitals exposed.
Pentagon officials say the rash of cases is evidence that senior officers will be held to the same standards as everyone else in uniform.
“We’ve made it abundantly clear that this is not tolerable,” said Nathan Galbreath, senior executive adviser for the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. “The numbers suggest that people are reporting when they see the officers appointed above [committing a crime], and they really do expect that their bosses walk the walk and talk the talk.”
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