The Military's Sexual Assault Problem: Avoiding Déjà Vu Again, Again

At a White House press conference on May 7, President Barack Obama said members of the U.S. military who commit sexual assaults will be "prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period." Clearly the president intended to send a laudable message that sexual assaults are a serious problem and perpetrators will face serious consequences, but good intentions can have unintended consequences.

On June 13, Military Judge Marcus Fulton found that the president's remarks constituted unlawful command influence in two on-going courts-martial. As a result, two service members accused of sexual assaults will not be subject to punitive discharge from the service if they are found guilty. Judge Fulton's decision was clearly intended to send a message that no one, not even the commander-in-chief, can put a finger on the scales of military justice.

The military today is vastly different from the one I joined in 1983. Back then, some officers' clubs had strippers on Friday nights. Occasionally aircrew members would have "ball walking" contests where a few would unzip their flight suits in the crotch to display their testicles and then walk around in the bar area to see who got noticed first. It was not uncommon to see centerfolds hanging in work areas and hear homosexual slurs or sex jokes at official events. The military I joined 30 years ago was a "boys' club" environment -- which I helped perpetuate -- where bad behavior was sloughed off with a "boys will be boys" wink and a nod.

Today, women account for about 15 percent of the active-duty military, up from less than 3 percent in 1973 when the all-volunteer force began. The military abandoned "don't ask, don't tell" in 2011 and allows gay and lesbian service members to serve openly. The military has evolved, even if some in uniform have been slow to keep up.

I was in charge of the sexual assault investigation at the Air Force Academy in 2003. As was the case after Tailhook in 1991 and the Aberdeen Proving Ground scandal in 1993, the pervasiveness of the acts at the Academy and the notoriety it gained brought promises of fundamental change so it would never happen again. But here we are, exactly a decade later, and it is déjà vu all over again.

Neither President Obama nor Congress can prevent another military sex scandal. There are, however, some things they can do to help.

First, they can set a better example. The president and Congress were outraged over military sexual assaults, but their moral indignation rings hollow to many in uniform. When presidents can have sex with subordinates and ignore laws they deem "quaint" with impunity, it undermines the respect due the commander-in-chief. The same goes for Congress, with a 10 percent approval rating and members with well-documented moral and ethical failings. If the 536 people that occupy the White House and fill the seats on Capitol Hill expect the more than 2 million who serve in the active and reserve armed forces to live up to high standards they need to walk the walk and do so themselves.

Second, the president and Congress must give military leaders the resources and maneuver room necessary to change military culture. It takes time for an aircraft carrier to alter its course; the same is true of a huge organization that prides itself on tradition. A common refrain by critics of President Obama and President Bush is they did not "listen to the generals." The generals (and admirals) are in the best positions to effect change in their services, so listen to them.

Third, military justice reform that takes control over sexual assault cases out of the hands of commanders is not a magic bullet. Military justice is unique: It has to be portable so it deploys with the troops and it has to enable commanders to maintain good order and discipline in war and peace. A military justice system where one category of misconduct is handled separately is likely to have its own unintended consequences.

Finally, the military has the primary responsibility for fixing the problem. The challenge for the military's senior leadership is to end once and for all the lingering "boys' club" culture. They have to instill a "one team, one fight" ethos that teammates do not prey on teammates. In my 25 years in the military there was a never a wink and a nod attitude about child molesters or barracks thieves. The military has to instill the same unforgiving attitude about those who sexually assault their teammates.

For the military to maintain its position as the most trusted institution in America, it has to stop the sexual assault epidemic. We cannot find ourselves five or 10 years from now having déjà vu again, again.