Dvorak: We need a new system to stop sexual assault in the military
"Whatever you hear reported? It happens a lot more than anything you're hearing," a soldier waiting in line for her salad told me. "It's all hush-hush. Still."
We were talking about more than the wilted romaine and heavy-handed dressing at this Arlington, Va., salad place. This was about sexual assault.
The 29-year-old woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she's not authorized to talk to reporters, said she's been around scores of sexual assaults during her 10 years in the Army. A soldier under her command was raped a few years ago, and she had to fight for the case to be taken seriously by her superiors.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is pushing a bill to move military sexual assault cases outside the chain of command. She's got 26,000 reasons - that's the Pentagon's estimate of the number of men and women in uniform who were victims of some kind of sexual assault last year. But only 3,553 members of the military filed sexual assault complaints from October 2012 to June.
The reason for the huge gap, Gillibrand says, is that the alleged victims don't trust the chain of command.
But my salad bar friend said she's not so sure that cutting the brass out of the process is the answer to the problem.
"A commanding officer may know things about the case that others don't know," she said. And in the alleged rape, she was an advocate for the victim as a commanding officer.
"Whatever they decide, they have to change something," she said.
Thousands of women are serving in uniform in the Washington, D.C., region. I wanted to talk to them about this issue, instead of interviewing advocates or politicians or victims and their lawyers. At gas stations, grocery stores and salad bars from Fort Belvoir, Va., to Joint Base Andrews, Md., to the Pentagon, I found that active-duty women had mixed feelings about how best to deal with sexual assault.
"I wouldn't want my chain of command to have anything to do with it," said a 28-year-old soldier, who said she has not been assaulted but couldn't imagine that a commanding officer should have anything to do with investigating and prosecuting an assault.
Another woman, 22, said she would have no problem with punishment being done through the chain of command because that's simply part of military culture.
Although they differed on how sexual assault should be prosecuted and punished, all of the women agreed on one thing: It's a huge problem.
So let's take a look at what happened when a case was taken away from the military - last week's trial of Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski.
The Pentagon asked Arlington prosecutors to hand Krusinski, who was then head of the Air Force office on sexual assault prevention, back to it after he was charged with a sexual assault count at a drunken Cinco de Mayo bar party. The prosecutors refused.
The charge was later bumped down to an assault. And after a brief trial last week, a civilian jury acquitted him of that charge.
Did the system work? Some folks argued that his military commanders would have punished him more severely than the jury did. But I liked the fact that he was subjected to a civilian judicial process.
His alleged victim said Krusinski came up behind her outside Freddie's Beach Bar that night, squeezed her behind, asked her how she liked it, then swaggered - or maybe staggered, since the police report said he'd been drinking heavily - off.
Witnesses said he was doing that all over the bar that night and had a couple of other targets, including a bartender. They all brushed him off. Not the 23-year-old graduate student. She confronted him and began hitting him in the face. She testified that she used her right hand. Other witnesses said the woman was bashing him with the cellphone she was holding her in her left hand.
Any woman who has ever been groped or violated understands the woman's primal response. The Arlington jury ultimately decided that conflicting accounts about the details of the assault and the woman's description of the beating were enough to drop the case.
But in the meantime, Krusinski was yanked from his sexual-harassment-prevention post, and the rest of the country got a good look at how ridiculous it was to have a man like this in charge of such an important program.
And that's where we see the real problem. With guys such as Krusinski - innocent of assault, but guilty of living up to boorish stereotypes - the military wasn't really taking this whole epidemic seriously.
What it has been doing simply isn't working. So, short of hiring a special force of mobile-phone wielding avengers, trying anything new will be an improvement.
Let's hope a few more senators feel that way, too.
Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post.