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After a decade of war, the military may have become soft on some sexual assault offenders, the Pentagon’s top officer said Friday.
“If a perpetrator shows up at a court-martial with a rack of ribbons and has four deployments and a Purple Heart, there is certainly a risk that we might be a little too forgiving of that particular crime,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told reporters at a Pentagon news briefing.
“This is actually a continuum of a challenge we’ve had,” Dempsey said, recalling the 1990s, when the military faced a string of sexual assault incidents including the Tailhook scandal involving dozens of Navy and Marine aviators, and the spate of sexual assault incidents at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and the Air Force Academy in Colorado.
“Then we went to war and maybe some of that was masked,” Dempsey said. “Do I think there is an effect of 10 years of war? Yeah, instinctively I do. And we’ve been looking at what that might be.”
Dempsey’s comments came a day after he, along with every service chief and service secretary, was summoned to the White House to talk with the president about how to address sexual assault in the military.
The issue has captured the attention of the military’s top brass in recent weeks after several incidents, including the arrest of the chief of the Air Force’s sexual assault and response program for alleged sexual assault.
Obama said Thursday that military sexual assault “is dangerous to our national security.”
Lawmakers are demanding revisions to the Uniform Code of Military Justice to strip commanders of their authority to handle sexual assault cases and hand over the potential prosecution of offenders to an independent prosecutor. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he is not ruling that out.
“We’re not taking anything off the table,” Hagel told reporters at the joint news briefing with Dempsey.
Dempsey said commanders should continue to play a role in preventing and responding to sexual assaults.
“In our system, we give a commander life-and-death decision-making authority. I can’t image going forward to solve this issue without commanders involved,” he said.
Dempsey suggested addressing sexual assault requires more than policy changes.
“Now is time for moral courage at every level. There can be no bystanders,” he said. “We have a serious problem that we must solve: aggressive sexual behavior that rips at the bond of trust that binds us together. We need — actually we must — change course.”