Pentagon: Ground Zero for Military Sexual Assault Scandal

Author: Wendy Innes
Created: 27 October, 2017
Updated: 17 October, 2022
5 min read

Since the military sexual trauma scandal came to light in 2013, there have been more than 500 cases of senior military officials being disciplined for misconduct, according to an investigation by USA Today.

Nearly half of those cases are personal misconduct or ethical violations, often sexual misconduct, and it would seem that the Pentagon is in no hurry to address the problem among its top brass.

Despite widespread abuses of power by these public figures, the Pentagon does not conduct any research to determine the breadth and depth of the problem, nor does it regularly make public any disciplinary actions taken against those senior officers who are caught.

It would seem only those cases that draw media attention are addressed publicly. The Pentagon simply closes ranks around its own and quietly sweeps the problem under the rug until whistle-blowers raise concerns.

In 2014, in the wake of the MST scandal of 2013, then Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel established The Office of the Senior Advisor for Military Professionalism, spearheaded by Rear Adm. Margaret Klein. The office was tasked with determining how far reaching the problem was. But this never happened and the office was scuttled just two years later.

Instead, according to a Pentagon release, the office focused on “leader and character development,” as well as “effective integration and implementation of ongoing efforts to further military professionalism, moral and ethical decision making, and the traditional values of military service.”

Because the Pentagon is less than above board about sexual scandals among its top members, they often come out in a piecemeal fashion, such as the case of Maj. Gen. Joseph Harrington. The Army was unaware of Harrington sending inappropriate Facebook messages to a subordinate’s wife until USA Today told them. He was relieved of duty on October 13, but this is the exception, not the rule.

And despite the Pentagon’s claims to the contrary, it would seem that the problem is fairly widespread.

According to the Washington Post, even those who are responsible for preventing and prosecuting sexual assault are guilty of committing the crime. The WaPo piece highlights the cases of a military prosecutor who raped a woman at knifepoint on multiple occasions and a sexual assault prevention officer who was convicted of repeatedly raping a pre-teen girl.

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The piece also states that there were eight other cases, but said the Army declined to give any details on those cases, and said that every service had similar cases.

Take, for example, the case of the supervisor for the Army’s special-victims prosecutors who was accused of groping a female lawyer at a sexual assault prevention conference. While Lt. Col. Jay Morse acknowledges having an encounter with the woman, he claims it was consensual.

In a classic case of he said, she said, Morse was given a slap on the wrist, not prosecuted, and allowed to retire soon after, presumably with full benefits.

Perhaps the most startling revelation of the WaPo article is that tens of thousands of military recruiters had to be retrained under Secretary Hagel after reports of young female recruits being treated in an inappropriate sexual manner by recruiters across all the services.

Despite these reports, the Pentagon still claims to be making progress on sexual assault within the military. But data doesn’t necessarily support this claim.

Last year, the defense department received 6,172 reports of sexual assault. This is more than twice the number that was received in 2010 and is an all-time high.

On one hand, the high number could mean that more victims feel safer reporting the crime, something that would support the Pentagon’s claim. On the other, it just highlights how bad the problem really is and raises the question of how many more victims haven’t come forward.

One thing is clear: the problem is pervasive, from the top to the bottom.

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In a statement from Pentagon spokesperson Laura Ochoa, she said, “Officer misconduct has and will always be taken seriously by Sec. Mattis and our senior officers who are expected to serve as exemplary leaders within the armed forces.”

Lawmakers and advocacy groups are not happy with the current climate and good ole boy network found within the Pentagon.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), a member of the Armed Services Committee, had some scathing comments in regard to the situation.

“This is another example of top (Pentagon) officials refusing to demand accountability and sweeping major ethical problems from commanders under the rug to the detriment of the men and women who serve admirably under them,” she said. “Commanders are not doing their part to end this climate of sexual harassment and sexual assault and devaluing women."

Former top prosecutor for the Air Force and president of Protect Our Defenders, Don Christensen, said the military’s top brass often see themselves as a class above everyone else, with little accountability for their actions, and the department’s disciplinary actions against them supports this.

“They’re more nobility than they are just average American citizens,” Christensen said, who retired as a colonel. “They start to feel above the law. They feel like royalty versus an officer dedicated to the country.”

“The everyday troop is court-martialed for what a general officer is given a slap on the hand for,” he added.

Christensen says that the Pentagon is ultimately failing by allowing its top brass to retire quietly with full benefits, keep their security clearances, and get high paying jobs with government contractors after the fact.

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The only way to punish this behavior, he says, is to take these things away -- something that Rep. Jackie Speier of California agrees with.

Speier, a Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee says, in a twist on the old adage, if you spare the rod, you spoil the general.

“Naming and shaming is key,” Speier said. “If you really want to create an environment that is going to sanitize this conduct from happening, investigate it, prosecute it and then inform the public.”

Photo Credit: Ahturner / shutterstock.com

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