THE PENTAGON — A recent Pentagon report says the number of sexual assaults among people in the military continues to grow. The estimated number of incidents, ranging from groping to rape, increased by 37 percent last year. Both men and women were victims. This is prompting them, and activists, to push for deep changes in the US military.
More women are on active military duty than ever before. And as their numbers grow, so do the reports of sexual assaults.
Calls to do something about it are growing.
“So not only is it a crime, not only is it shameful and disgraceful, but it also is going to make, and has made, the military less effective than it can be. And as such, it is dangerous to our national security," said President Obama.
Few understand that better than Jenny McClendon, a veteran who was raped by a superior while serving in the U.S. Navy. She now works to advocate change through a group called Protect Our Defenders.
"If you can't trust the people that you're working with to have your best interests at heart, if you can't trust the people that you're working with to not assault you, then you can't trust your unit which means that there's a divided unit," she said.
Women now make up more than 14 percent of the active duty force, and for the military that means new challenges in creating an environment where men and women can work and live in close quarters while maintaining professionalism.
The military has tried to combat sexual assault with public service announcements that stress awareness, and training programs that call for sensitivity and an improved reporting system.
But revelations that some of those in charge of the programs have allegedly been perpetrators could undermine these efforts. Like the case of Colonel Jeffrey Krusinski, head of the Air Force sexual assault prevention and response unit, who is now charged with groping a woman near the Pentagon.
McClendon believes it's time for deep cultural changes. She recalls that while serving 12 years ago, it was acceptable for male soldiers to say they didn't want to work with women.
“When that's permitted, you've got a culture that promotes sexual assaults and rape. We need to challenge that paradigm. We need to have people saying we're not going to allow people to not work with women. If you don't want to work with women, you're not working in the military," she said.
With an estimated 26,000 assault cases last year, Congress is considering tougher penalties for sexual assaults in the military. Activists welcome those moves.
McClendon says creating a more diverse, gender-neutral environment in the military will ultimately advance as more women enlist.