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JULIETTE KAYYEM

Pentagon’s sexual assault conundrum

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel inherited a military culture in which woman are not accorded equal status.

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Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel inherited a military culture in which woman are not accorded equal status.

Feeling outrage over the increasing prevalence of sexual assault in the military is understandable, but too easy. How hard is it, really, to become indignant when Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Krusinski, the Air Force’s head of its sexual assault prevention division, was arrested for groping a woman last week? The next day, a report based on a 2012 survey showed that 26,000 personnel — mostly women, but including a few men — had “unwanted sexual contact,” a 35 percent increase over 2010. In most cases, no formal charges were brought, maybe because the likes of Krusinski were within the reporting structure.

The evidence forced President Obama to bluntly tell Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to “step up our game exponentially,” an unfortunate reference since it appears that some in the military view sexual misconduct as a kind of sport. Then again, to treat it like an epidemic is too forgiving, as if a virus suddenly overwhelmed the Pentagon’s ability to respond. The military’s true commitment will be tested this Wednesday when the service branches report back on their plans for full and equal participation of women, following the end of rules excluding them from combat.

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Let’s dispose quickly of the obligatory disclaimers that most men in the military are law-abiding and honorable, and that the Pentagon has made significant efforts to prevent sexual assault and provide support to its victims. But for all the fixes proposed by the Pentagon and a Congress that has rightfully lost patience, the only real solution will come with the complete integration of women into an armed services that has, for too long, treated them as second-class citizens. Sexual misconduct is a symptom, not a cause, of an institutional culture built around rules prohibiting women from equal status.

The effort to end those rules is not complete; indeed, it has barely started. When former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Jan. 24 that he was, with one pen stroke, ending the combat exclusion rules, he was, in reality, only calling for plans to be created by May 15. Dismantling institutional barriers that had been set up over centuries cannot be done by fiat. Increasing the availability of education, training, services, positions, and promotion opportunities requires a detailed strategy.

There’s no penalty for the service branches to miss this week’s deadline, but failing to keep to a generous timetable in the midst of a flood of damaging new revelations would send a terrible signal. It would also would not go over well with the judge presiding over a case brought by four female warriors seeking redress for lost opportunities under the combat exclusion rules; that case goes on, further testing the Pentagon’s commitment to reform itself.

That process begins with recruitment. Without more women entering the services, there won’t be enough candidates to rise up the ranks. Thus, the plans being crafted by the service branches should not treat the sexual assault problem as an unrelated issue; women won’t want to join an institution that mistreats them. It is not enough to create new points of access. Rather, the Pentagon must ensure that those doors don’t open into a hostile environment.

The prevalence of women in any institution will change its culture. It is no coincidence that the effort to reform the Pentagon’s legal approach to handling assault charges — which is opposed by Hagel — is being led by women. They include Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Barbara Boxer, and Representative Niki Tsongas, who will propose legislation this week to amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice. President Obama’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett headed a meeting at the While House on Thursday to discuss the proposed changes. Michelle Obama, who serves as a liaison to military families, was represented by her chief of staff, Tina Tchen.

Sexual misconduct is a symptom, not a cause, of an institutional zeitgeist.

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All this pressure is essential, but it risks putting the impetus for changing the combat rules and reducing sexual assaults on women, as if it is their problem. It isn’t. This is Hagel’s inherited burden.

On Wednesday, let’s see if he steps up his game.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem.
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