Image: L.A. Progressive
BY SPENCER ACKERMAN
An Air Force brochure on sexual assault advises potential victims not to fight off their attackers.
“It may be advisable to submit [rather] than resist,” reads the brochure (.pdf), issued to airmen at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, where nearly 10,000 military and civilian personnel are assigned. “You have to make this decision based on circumstances. Be especially careful if the attacker has a weapon.”
The brochure, acquired by Danger Room, issues a series of guidances on “risk reduction” for sexual assault. Among others, it advises people under sexual attack in parking lots to “consider rolling underneath a nearby auto and scream loud. It is difficult to force anyone out from under a car.” A public affairs officer at Shaw, Sgt. Alexandria Mosness, says she believes the brochure is current.
While the brochure also explains that sexual assault is not always committed by people who “don’t look like a rapist” — attackers “tend to have hyper-masculine attitudes,” it advises — it does not offer instruction to servicemembers on not committing sexual assault. Prevention is treated as the responsibility of potential victims.
“Rapists look for vulnerability and then exploit it in those who: are young (naive); are new to the base, deployment, area, etc.; are emotionally unstable,” the brochure (.pdf) continues.
All this comes as the Air Force, and the U.S. military more broadly, deals with the fallout of the service’s sexual-assault prevention and response chief, Lt. Col Jeffrey Krusinski, getting arrested on sexual-battery charges on Sunday. During a Senate hearing today, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), grilled Air Force officials on how Krusinski was placed in his post. “His record is very good,” Gen. Mark Welsh III, the Air Force’s chief of staff, said, citing a lack of warning signs in Krusinski’s prior service.
Welsh said he and outgoing Air Force Secretary Michael Donley were “appalled” to hear of Krusinski’s arrest. “We will not quit working this problem,” Welsh continued.
Pages from the brochure were provided to Danger Room by Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group that raises awareness of sexual assault within the military. The organization’s spokesman, Brian Purchia, described it as an example of the military’s myopia about a problem that top leaders like Welsh have sworn to take seriously.
The brochure is “an affront to victims”, Purchia told Danger Room. “The Air Force should be passing out pamphlets to our men and women in uniform on how not to commit sexual assault. … This brochure is just the latest in a long history of failed programs and policies. The military’s sexual assault prevention campaigns are rooted in a wrong headed 1950′s paradigm.”
The military does some of that — not without controversy. An artistic group called “Sex Signals” has performed for airmen to teach scenarios about sexual assault in what an official Air Force release called “a ‘lively and humorous’ way.” (The group’s founder, Gail Stern, says the effort “utilizes the strategic and intentional use of humor to reduce the emotional and cognitive resistance audiences have to the subject of rape.”) The Army has a video game designed to instruct soldiers about the dangers of “alcohol-induced date rape.” The military has also come under criticism for a poster advising servicemembers to “Ask When She’s Sober,” which the New York Times blasted as a “grotesque parody of an etiquette poster.”
Rape-crisis counselors sometimes advise, like the Air Force brochure does, that there are circumstances whereby fighting back against an assailant is a bad idea. Purchia doesn’t dispute that. “You can always identify some circumstances,” he said, “but as a general rule research indicates and it’s generally understood that fighting back often can fend off the attacker and usually does not lead to greater injury.”
“To any rational person this is completely backwards and shows the scope of epidemic,” Purchia continued. “Fundamental reforms are needed — the reporting, investigation and adjudication of sexual assault must be taken out of the chain of command.”
That’s a step that the military has been reluctant to take. At today’s hearing, Welsh and Donley expressed concern that doing so might pose a risk to “good order and discipline,” as Donley put it. (“This is not good order and discipline,” replied Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand of New York.) Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel took a more limited step last month by proposing to prevent commanders from overturning verdicts in criminal cases, after the general in charge of the Third Air Force voided a lieutenant colonel’s sexual-assault conviction.
Congress needs to approve changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice for that to happen. Today, Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) introduced a bill that would “refer cases to the general court martial level when sexual assault charges are filed or to the next superior competent authority when there is a conflict of interest in the immediate chain of command.”
This afternoon, the Pentagon will release its annual report on sexual assault prevention and response. Reportedly, it will estimate that there were 26,000 instances of sexual assault — about 70 per day, as Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) previewed — up from the 19,000 reported in last year’s report. As ThinkProgress’ Hayes Brown noted, only 3,374 such cases were reported to authorities. The military might be the one hiding under its cars.
Update, 4:45 p.m.: According to the newly-released report (it’s a huge, two-volume .PDF) the Pentagon indeed estimates there were 26,000 incidents of sexual assault over the past year, and 3,374 reported cases of such. Out of those reported cases, 1,174 servicemembers were recommended for “command action” — either judicial or administrative punishment. Of those, 594 were proffered for criminal charges; and 460 cases have been completed. Thus far, 238 people were convicted of at least one charge of sexual assault. (See page 73 in the first volume for these stats.)
Defense Secretary Hagel, in a press conference this afternoon, said that “the frequency of this crime and the perception that there is tolerance of it could very well undermine our ability to effectively carry out our mission, and to recruit and retain the good people we need.” Hagel outlined a number of administrative steps to improve accountability for setting command climates intolerant of sexual assault throughout the military. But Hagel stopped short of removing responsibility for investigating and prosecuting sexual assault from the chain of command, as several members of Congress want.
“I don’t think taking it away — the ultimate responsibility away from the military, I think that would just weaken the system,” Hagel said.
But the door isn’t closed. An independent panel mandated in the last defense bill passed by Congress will study whether the chain of command ought to be removed in investigating and prosecuting offenses.
The Pentagon report found that of active-duty servicewomen who reported experiencing sexual assault to a military authority, only 38 percent said they experienced no form of retaliation. Of the much-larger cohort of active-duty servicewomen who did not report their sexual abuse, 50 percent did not do so because they “did not think anything would be done”; 51 percent declined to report “did not think [the] report would be kept confidential”; 47 percent “were afraid of retaliations/reprisals from the person(s) who did it or their friends”; 43 percent “heard about negative experiences other victims went through who reported their situation”; 28 percent “thought [their] performance evaluation or chance for promotion would suffer.”
Fully 94 percent of mid-career to senior officers who declined to report their sexual assault — that is, majors/lieutenant commanders; lieutenant colonels/commanders; and colonels/captains — did so because they “felt uncomfortable” making such reports.