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Originally published Thursday, May 16, 2013 at 4:31 PM

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Guest: End the culture of silence about sexual assaults in the military

It is time to change the military’s culture of silence about acts of violence against their own, writes guest columnist Gael Tarleton.

Special to The Times

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THE parallels are disturbing: a cloistered culture, intentional efforts to prevent public scrutiny and powerless victims compelled to stay silent. We could be reading about another sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

Instead it’s happening in the U.S. military. Our all-volunteer military is riddled with decades of examples where those in power tolerated and therefore perpetuated sexual attacks against the powerless.

It is time to change the military’s culture of silence about acts of violence against their own.

A recent Pentagon report showed a devastating pattern of escalating sexual violence against women and men in the military. These revelations follow a long, sad trail of betrayals of the military’s own code of conduct.

There was the 1991 Tailhook scandal, where 83 women and 7 men were sexually assaulted by fellow service members, that rocked the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. In 2003, the Pentagon revealed a systematic pattern of sexual assaults at the U.S. Air Force Academy. In 2005, videos showed American soldiers committing acts of sexual torture and degradation of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, Iraq.

It’s 2013. Twenty years of evidence of sexual violence inside the military cannot be relegated to a report or a call for more training. The Air Force lieutenant colonel in charge of sexual-violence-prevention programs at the Pentagon recently was arrested for sexually assaulting a woman outside a bar.

This crisis challenges the legitimacy of civilian control of the military. Our top military officials are accountable to civilian leaders through a chain of command: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and President Obama.

In our catastrophe-a-week society, it will be hard for the public and our elected leaders to sustain the outrage over this abuse of power. But we must. Our volunteer troops and the integrity of our military institutions depend on our ability to remain vigilant.

Civilians must have power to hold the military accountable. The secretary of defense should work with Congress to establish a task force to examine all laws and military statutes that define the scope of “civilian control of the military” and then assert that control to the fullest extent.

Victims of sexual violence, military or civilian, must never be denied their rights to a trial by a jury of their peers. The secretary of defense should assign a panel of civilian legal scholars specializing in military justice and Judge Advocate General Corps practitioners from the uniformed services to explore how military courts are structured to address criminal cases involving sexual assaults and violence.

Our military cadets, enlisted troops and officers should have a safe hotline to report sexual attacks without violating their oath to obey the military chain of command. Senior civilian officials subordinate to the secretary of defense should monitor the hotline, bypassing military authorities.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has started the drumbeat for reforms. More will be needed and must be pursued to open up the military culture to scrutiny. These proposed actions and others would prompt a culture shift desperately needed.

Washington state has a special responsibility to the nearly 65,000 active duty, reserve and National Guard troops at 10 Army, Navy and Air Force bases and installations across the state.

For all those women and men who volunteer to serve our nation, we are deeply grateful for your sacrifices. It is our duty as civilian leaders to protect you from the predators within your ranks. Our civilian leaders must say to the military: We’re in charge.

State Rep. Gael Tarleton, D-Seattle, is a port security expert, former senior defense intelligence analyst and recipient of a medal for exceptional contributions to national security.


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