WASHINGTON — President Obama summoned the Pentagon’s leadership to the White House on Thursday for a crisis meeting about sexual assault in the armed forces, but the commander in chief said “there’s no silver bullet to solving this problem.”
In a brief appearance after the session, Obama said sex crimes in the military are “dangerous to our national security” and “not a sideshow.” He said military officials told him “that they’re ashamed by some of what’s happened,” and he pledged to work with Congress on legislation to address the issue.
Despite years of intensive effort to confront the problem, military commanders earlier admitted their collective failure in frank confessionals and seemed at a loss for answers.
“The Army is failing in its efforts to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment,” Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, said in a blog post addressed to his 540,000 soldiers. “It is time we take on the fight as our primary mission.”
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military was mired in a “crisis” and suggested that fatigue from more than a decade of war might be a factor. “We’re losing the confidence of the women who serve that we can solve this problem,” he told reporters as he flew back to Washington from Brussels.
In another sign of how the Pentagon is struggling to cope, Charles Blanchard, the chief legal and ethics officer for the Air Force, issued an unusual public plea, via Twitter, for “more ideas on ending sexual assault in the military.”
Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel rescheduled a news conference at the Pentagon for today to meet instead at the White House with Obama and leaders from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.
Hagel issued an emergency order Tuesday night to retrain and rescreen all 9,000 sexual assault prevention officers in the military after the Army disclosed that it was investigating one of them at Fort Hood on suspicion of “abusive sexual contact” and forcing a subordinate into prostitution. Ten days earlier, the Air Force’s top sexual-assault prevention officer was arrested on charges that he drunkenly groped a woman.
On Thursday, Army officials said the manager of the sexual assault response program at Fort Campbell, Ky., was relieved of his post after his arrest in a domestic dispute with his ex-wife.
Lt. Col. Darin Haas turned himself in to police in Clarksville, Tenn., late Wednesday on charges of violating an order of protection, and stalking, authorities said.
The Pentagon has been slow to provide details of how Hagel’s order will be carried out.
The Army said Thursday that its investigation at Fort Hood was continuing and that no charges had been filed. Authorities have not publicly identified the suspect except to describe him as a sergeant first class at III Corps. However, two unnamed officials told the Associated Press on Thursday that the suspect is Sgt. 1st Class Gregory McQueen.
According to soldiers at Fort Hood who know the suspect, Army officials in recent days have scoured websites and office bulletin boards to remove any photographs and documents containing his name or image.
Soldier not surprised
Despite the lurid allegations at Fort Hood, one female soldier in the same battalion as the suspect said she wasn’t surprised by the news, citing a pattern of intimidation against sex-crime victims.
The 25-year-old soldier, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared retaliation, said she was sexually assaulted at Fort Hood in December 2011. When she reported the attack, her commander tried to blame her for provoking the incident, she said, and a sexual-assault prevention coordinator “kind of swept it under the rug and told me, ‘You just took it the wrong way.’”
The assault was only properly investigated, the soldier said, after she made an appeal to Eric Shinseki, the retired general who is secretary of Veterans Affairs, when he visited Fort Hood. Her assailant was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison. “I’m one of the few lucky ones who got justice,” she said.
Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, a split was emerging among lawmakers who have pledged legislative action to combat sex crimes in the military.
One group, led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is pushing to overhaul the military justice system so that prosecutors, instead of commanders without legal training, have the authority to decide whether to investigate serious crimes and bring defendants to trial.
Other lawmakers, however, said it was more important to hold commanders accountable for how they respond than to change the legal system. “It’s far too soon to take a hatchet to the judicial system,” said Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “The problem is a cultural issue.”