May 7 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama vowed to “exponentially step up our game” to combat military sexual assaults after the Air Force’s top officer for sexual-assault prevention was arrested on charges of sexual battery.
As the Pentagon prepared today to report as many as 26,000 sexual assaults last year, Obama promised at a White House news conference to “do everything we can to root this out.”
Violators should be “prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged,” the president said. “Period.”
Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Krusinski, 41, was arrested on May 5 in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Virginia, where he allegedly “approached a female victim in a parking lot and grabbed her breasts and buttocks,” according to an Arlington County police report. Efforts to locate Krusinski for comment weren’t successful.
The arrest provides “dramatic evidence of the need for the Department of Defense to act swiftly and decisively to address the plague of sexual assaults in the military,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said today at a hearing in Washington.
The Defense Department plans to release today its annual report on sexual assaults, an event that each year prompts criticism from lawmakers and victims’ advocacy groups and pledges by the Pentagon to do better.
Today’s study will show 3,374 reported cases of assault in 2012, a 5.7 percent increase from the previous year, according to a statement from Senators Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, and Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican.
Such reported assaults are dwarfed by the number of cases that go unreported. Victims have said they’re afraid of coming forward, partly because they feared a risk to their career.
The Pentagon has previously estimated 19,000 such incidents occur each year in the military, based on anonymous surveys of the active-duty force. Today’s report estimates that as many as 26,000 assaults occurred last year, an average of 71 incidents per day, according to the senators.
Ayotte and Murray introduced legislation today that they said would make it easier to prosecute assault cases. It includes a procedure already used by the Air Force to provide a Special Victims’ Counsel who can assist assault victims throughout the legal process.
Levin, the committee chairman, said he plans to include legislation on sexual assault as part of this year’s annual defense authorization bill, as early as next month.
Responding to Krusinski’s arrest, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “expressed outrage and disgust over the troubling allegations and emphasized that this matter will be dealt with swiftly and decisively,” George Little, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.
Hagel, who discussed the arrest yesterday with Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, will soon announce the “next steps in our ongoing effort to combat this vile crime,” according to Little.
Krusinski, who had served as chief of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response branch since February, was removed from the job pending an investigation, according to an Air Force statement. He was released after posting a $5,000 bond, according to Dustin Sternbeck, an Arlington County police spokesman.
“It is unacceptable that this occurs anywhere at any time in our Air Force and we will not quit working on this problem,” General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said today at Levin’s hearing.
Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, a victim-support group, said in a statement that Krusinski’s arrest “is one more example on a long list of how fundamentally broken the military justice system and culture are.”
The Air Force is still reeling from a scandal in which at least five military instructors were convicted of sexual assaults or unprofessional relationships with trainees or students at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
An investigation of the Lackland case identified 23 alleged offenders and 48 alleged victims.
In an effort to deal with sex crimes in the armed forces, Hagel last month proposed barring military commanders from overturning court-martial convictions of sexual assault and other major crimes.
The proposal, which requires legislation from Congress, follows lawmakers’ protests over a case at Aviano Air Base in Italy, where an aggravated sexual-assault conviction in a court- martial last year was overturned by Air Force Lieutenant General Craig Franklin, the so-called convening authority who oversaw the case.
Franklin’s decision fueled debate about whether the military acts forcefully enough to prosecute wrongdoing.
In a potentially similar case, Air Force Lieutenant General Susan Helms, selected to become vice commander of the Air Force’s Space Command, had her nomination blocked by Senator Claire McCaskill, a member of the Armed Services Committee.
McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, wants to examine Helms’s previously unpublicized decision to overturn an aggravated sexual-assault conviction for a captain at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Welsh confirmed the reversal at today’s hearing, saying Helms didn’t think the evidence to reach the verdict met the “burden of reasonable doubt.”
--With assistance from Margaret Talev and Julianna Goldman in Washington. Editors: Larry Liebert, Robin Meszoly
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