President Obama expressed his frustration Tuesday and said he has "no tolerance" for sexual assault after the Pentagon released another report outlining the further growth of sexual assault within the ranks.
The commander-in-chief demanded further consequences for those convicted of sexual assault. He said he is tired of hearing military leaders make speeches about the problem or promise to increase training or expand awareness programs because the problem continues to increase.
"If we find out somebody's engaging in this, they've got to be held accountable – prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period," Obama said.
The president's comments come after the Air Force's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response branch chief was arrested and charged early Sunday morning with sexual battery. Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, 41, is accused of fondling a woman's buttocks and breasts before the female victim fought him off, according to Arlington County police.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he was disgusted by the report before outlining a series of steps to curb the epidemic of sexual assaults in the military, including periodic searches to rid the military workplace of sexual material.
A report issued by the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office found the parentage of active duty females who receive unwanted sexual contact grow from 4.4 percent to 6.1 percent from 2010 to 2012. The number of active duty males remained steady at 1.2 percent.
"The increased [unwanted sexual contact] rate for women and the unchanged [unwanted sexual contact] rate for men this year indicate that the Department has a persistent program and much more work to do in preventing sexual assault in the Armed Forces," according to the report.
Hagel said the growing problem of sexual assaults had reached the stage where it "may very well undermine our ability to carry out the mission" of protecting the nation. More than 12,400 active duty females reported unwanted sexual contact in 2012, according to the report. However, most sexual assaults and rapes go unreported in the military.
The Defense Department estimates that 26,000 cases of sexual assault and rape occurred in fiscal 2012 compared to 19,000 estimated cases in 2011.
"We need a culture change where every service member is treated with dignity and respect, where offenders know they will be held accountable," Hagel said.
"All leaders will be held accountable" for promoting a command climate of "dignity and respect' through regular and comprehensive inspections of workplaces" in the Defense Department and at the military academies. Hagel said he expected the first inspections to be completed by July 1.
Hagel also said he was appointing an independent panel to conduct a review of the military's programs for combating sexual assault to insure that they were operating to create a climate where abuse "is not tolerated, condoned or ignored."
He initially was not scheduled to speak at the release of the Department's annual report on sexual assaults, but decided to open the briefing to demonstrate his concern after the Krusinski arrest became known.
"We're particularly disappointed because this alleged incident occurred here," Hagel said referring to Krusinki's arrest occurring in a parking lot near a strip club about one mile from the Pentagon.
The American public "certainly must expect more and deserves more" from the military's leadership, Hagel said.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told lawmakers on Capitol Hill he was "appalled" when he found out about the charges against the chief of his service's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
Krusinski was immediately removed from his position after serving there for two months. Welsh also told Congress the Air Force has requested jurisdiction from Arlington County, Va., "which is standard practice in cases like these."
This is only the latest of a string of sexual assault scandals the Air Force has faced in the past 12 months. An Air Force three-star overturned the guilty verdict of a fellow pilot after he was convicted of sexually assaulting a woman in his home in Italy. In 2012, the Air Force convicted multiple basic training instructors with sexually assaulting over 50 recruits at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee lined up to question Welsh and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley about the spiraling problem of sexual assault within the Air Force. Sen. Kristin Gillibrand, D-N.Y., told Donley and Welsh that service leadership had failed in protecting their airmen.
"Clearly, there is insufficient training, insufficient understanding, if the man in charge of the Air Force of preventing sexual assaults is being alleged of committing sexual assault this weekend," Gillibrand said. "There is failing in training and understanding of what sexual assault is and how corrosive and damaging it is to good order and discipline.
Gillibrand and Sen. Claire McCasskill, D-Mo., have led efforts to change the way the military prosecutes sexual assault and remove the ability of a commander to overturn a sexual assault conviction.
McCaskill has held up the nomination for Lt. Gen. Susan Helms to become the next vice commander of Space Command for overturning a sexual assault conviction in 2012.
"In both instances, juries selected by those generals said they believed the victim, and in both of those instances, the general said ‘no, no, we believe the member of the military," said McCaskill referring to Helms' and Franklins' decisions to overturn convictions.
On Tuesday, Hagel pushed back against Congressional recommendations that the authority to investigate and prosecute of sexual assault cases be taken away from the military and be given to an independent authority.
"The ultimate authority has to remain within the command structure," Hagel said. Congressional leaders "have very legitimate points," Hagel said, but their recommendations "would just weaken the system" the military has put in place through the court martial process.
However Hagel did recommend that Congress reduce the responsibility that commanders hold in overturning convictions of major crimes. He said that Congress and the Pentagon should review Article 60 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which provides the convening authority to commanders.
Welsh told lawmakers he and his fellow military leaders are working as hard as they can to curb sexual assault within the services.
"We're trying everything we can think of. The key for us is finding things that have more traction, that make more of a difference over time," he said.
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