On the eve of President Obama’s commencement address to the Naval Academy’s Class of 2013, military lawyers worked out final procedures for the general court-martial of a history instructor charged with raping a female midshipman.
The case against the instructor, Marine Maj. Mark A. Thompson, on two counts of aggravated sexual assault, two counts of fraternization and three counts of conduct unbecoming an officer, underlined what former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called a “persistent problem” with sexual assault and harassment at the military academies.
On Saturday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will address graduates at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., where it was disclosed on Wednesday that an enlisted staff member has been charged with planting hidden cameras in the showers and locker rooms of female cadets.
The accused, Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael McClendon, was relieved of duties and and charged with four counts of indecent acts, dereliction of duty, cruelty and maltreatment, and violations of good order and discipline. He has been transferred to Fort Drum, N.Y., while under investigation.
In Colorado Springs next Wednesday, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, who has announced that he will step down in June, will address the commencement at the Air Force Academy.
Earlier this month, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, an Air Force Academy graduate in charge of Air Force sex abuse prevention programs, was arraigned in an Arlington County, Va., court on charges of sexual battery for allegedly groping a woman outside a strip club.
The Defense Department found last December that sexual assault incidents reported by students at the three military academies rose by 23 percent in 2012, according to the Pentagon’s “Annual Report on Sexual Assault and Violence at the Military Academies.”
“Sexual assault is a crime and has no place at the U.S. Naval Academy, just as it has no place in the rest of the military,” said Navy Cmdr. John Schofield, the Naval Academy spokesman.
At least 80 cases of sexual assault were reported by cadets and midshipmen during the 2011-2012 academic year compared to 65 the previous year, the Pentagon said. It was the third straight year of increases, from a low of 25 in 2009.
The struggle to decrease the number of sexual assaults at the academies reflected the larger problem throughout the military that, if left unchecked, could pose a threat to national security, according to Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Sexual assault is not a problem unique to the academies. President Obama met with Hagel, Dempsey as well as each service secretary, chief and enlisted adviser at the White House to discuss the disturbing increase in sexual assaults within the ranks. A Pentagon study estimated that 26,000 sexual assaults occurred in the military in 2012.
On Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators and representatives proposed legislation to impose mandatory sentences for court-martial convictions of sexual assault that would include dishonorable discharge or dismissal from the service.
"This is a crime. It is a violent and vicious crime and the military needs to treat it as such," said Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, co-chairman of the House Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus and a co-sponsor of the legislation.
The case against Thompson was set to begin at the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard next Tuesday with jury selection, Navy officials said. Charges against Thompson were referred to a general court-martial earlier this year by Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller, the Naval Academy’s superintendent, after Article 32 hearings, similar to grand jury proceedings, in December and January.
The Article 32 hearings produced evidence and testimony that Thompson had engaged in heavy drinking at a croquet match between the Academy and St. John’s College, a liberal arts school in Annapolis, on April 30, 2011.
Former Midshipman Sarah Stadler, now an ensign serving as a gunnery officer aboard the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Howard, testified that she and a second midshipman continued drinking with Thompson after the match and then went to his apartment, where the alleged offenses occurred. Stadler described herself and the second woman as being “drunk.”
Stadler said she had sex with Thompson, continuing a relationship they had begun three months earlier. Thompson also had sex with the second woman, Stadler testified. The second midshipman later reported to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service that she had been raped.
Thompson’s defense team will consist of Marine Maj. Joseph Grimm and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Angela Tang, Navy officials said. William Ferris, the veteran Annapolis defense lawyer and retired Navy commander who represented Thompson at the Article 32 hearing, is no longer involved in the case. Ferris said Thompson decided he could no longer afford to have civilian counsel.