WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel faces many challenges in his job — ongoing budget cuts, civil war in Syria, Iran's nuclear ambitions.
But one of the most dire threats comes from within the very institution he leads.
Hagel is under mounting pressure to take dramatic action to confront what has become a shameful crisis for the U.S. military after a string of sexual assault scandals and a new report showing that the number of sexual assaults in the military has risen substantially, to an estimated 26,000 last year.
Hagel and other top Pentagon officials met Thursday with President Barack Obama at the White House to discuss the situation. After the meeting, the president said sexual assault in the military endangers national security.
“This goes to the heart and the core of who we are and how effective we're going to be,” Obama said.
The president expressed confidence in Hagel and other Pentagon leaders to deal with the problem, noting that Hagel is examining the policies of other countries and holding weekly meetings on the issue. Obama also endorsed Hagel's proposal to eliminate commanders' authority to overturn sexual assault convictions.
The sexual assault crisis has turned into an early test of leadership for Hagel, who has been on the job for three months. The former GOP senator from Nebraska often speaks of his abiding commitment to stand up for the men and women in uniform. He has expressed anger and frustration at sexual assault in the ranks, vowed to make the issue a priority and ordered a series of new initiatives.
But lawmakers are pushing for more. Some want to remove sexual assault cases from the military chain of command altogether, a proposal Hagel has yet to embrace.
Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat from eastern Iowa, has been pushing the Pentagon on the issue for years. He says “radical change” is needed in the handling of military sexual assault cases.
Braley and other lawmakers sat down with top Pentagon officials in February, before Hagel took over, and were assured that the issue was being taken seriously. After that meeting, a commander overturned a sexual assault conviction of a U.S. Air Force pilot stationed in Italy. That was followed by the separate sexual assault arrests of an Air Force officer and an Army sergeant, both of who were in charge of sexual assault prevention programs.
“It is a joke,” Braley said of the Pentagon's efforts over the years. “And to even attempt to call this a 'zero tolerance' policy when their own data suggests that 26,000 incidents of sexual assault in the military happened last year means it's time for a wake-up call, and accountability starts at the top and has to be drilled down throughout the entire chain of command.”
Braley now has helped author legislation that would strip military commanders of their authority to overturn convictions.
Not everyone shares Obama's confidence that Hagel can succeed where so many others have failed.
Betty Albanez of Bellevue ticks through the list of major sexual assault scandals that have hit the military during the 3½ decades since she herself was assaulted in the Army:
Tailhook. Aberdeen. The Air Force Academy.
Each time, the scandal dragged the problem of military sexual assaults into the public spotlight.
Each time, those in charge promised change.
Each time, the issue faded away until the next one exploded.
“It's hard for me to have hope,” Albanez said. “I have to see the change before I believe it.”
Still, some victim advocates say they have been encouraged by Hagel's strong words on the subject and the speed with which he has backed certain changes.
His background as a former Army infantry sergeant, as well as his history of work on veterans issues, could afford him additional credibility on the issue, said Sharon Robino-West.
An Omaha native who was assaulted while serving as a Marine, Robino-West moved back to the Omaha area in 1997. Through a program called At Ease, she now works with Nebraska veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, including many who were sexually assaulted.
“For Hagel to have been an active duty service member and have seen some of this and been around it at a time we want to make a change is a great thing,” Robino-West said.
Hagel has acknowledged that the negative perception of the military the revelations have created could undermine its ability to carry out its mission and to recruit and retain talented people.
In addressing the subject last week, Hagel noted that he had appointed various experts to an independent panel that will review the Pentagon's system for investigating, prosecuting and adjudicating sexual offenses.
He asked the panel to accelerate its work and provide recommendations within 12 months rather than 18. He also announced other initiatives to address the problem.
“The leadership of this department has no higher priority than the safety and welfare of our men and women in uniform, and that includes ensuring they are free from the threat of sexual harassment and sexual assault,” Hagel said.
Nancy Parrish, president of the victim advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, said it's still too early in Hagel's tenure to tell if he will be capable of bringing about real change.
“We sincerely appreciate that Secretary Hagel seems to have deeply held affection and respect for the troops, and we're hopeful that will translate into fundamental reform that will end victim blaming while punishing perpetrators and those that protect them,” Parrish said.
She noted that Leon Panetta backed a policy of “zero tolerance” when he was defense secretary, too.
“Words don't matter. They don't help the victim,” she said. “We've got to see fundamental reform.”
For her that means removing sexual assault cases from the military chain of command. She compared the current process to allowing the executive branch to decide whether to investigate a crime and to bring charges, then to pick the jury and be able to change the resulting sentence or conviction.
“The military justice system elevates an individual commander's discretion over the rule of law,” Parrish said. “Until this individual discretion is removed from the process, justice will elude the victims.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced legislation this week to remove the cases from the chain of command and have them handled by military prosecutors.
Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Mike Johanns, R-Neb., are among those who have signed on to the bill.
Hagel suggested last week that removing ultimate responsibility from the military chain of command would weaken the system. But Pentagon spokesman George Little stressed this week that Hagel is open to any proposals for addressing the problem. And Obama said Thursday that Hagel will be working closely with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Parrish said it feels like the issue is at a tipping point and has the potential to rip the military apart. It will be up to Hagel to prevent that from happening.
“This could be a defining legacy for him, one way or the other,” she said.
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