It is nearly unheard of for a military officer to stand trial, or even be publically accused of sexual misconduct. Military records over the last few years, however, are now showing that this culture of silence and shielding military leaders from these allegations is slowly eroding.
As Stars and Stripes reports, pressure on the military from Washington D.C. to crack down on sex crimes has made its way into the upper ranks. In the last six months, four colonels from the Army, the Air Force and the Marines have been charged with sexual assault. A Navy captain has also been found guilty of abusive sexual contact.
How rare is it for a military officer to be publically charged and tried for these kinds of offenses? During last federal fiscal year, 116 officers were tried, discharged, or punished following a sexual misconduct investigation. That number is more than double the number the Defense Department has on record for three years earlier. In fact, eight of those cases were against officers of colonel/Navy captain rank or higher. Eight may seem small but, in 2012, that number was two.
"There's not a lot of transparency when it comes to senior-officer misconduct," former Air Force chief prosecutor Don Christensen told Stripes. "They don't like the American public knowing what's going on, so they drag their heels in getting information out."
The prevailing attitude among the ranks now seems to be that officers will be held to the same standard their subordinates-- and reporting of officer misconduct has slowly improved. "We've made it abundantly clear that this [sexual assault] is not tolerable," says Nathan Galbreath, who serves as senior executive adviser for the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. "The numbers suggest that people are reporting when they see the officers appointed above [committing a crime], and they really do expect that their bosses walk the walk and talk the talk."
CASES BREAKING THE "TABOO"
Those that know how rare it is for military officers to be accused and tried for sexual offenses often point to the case of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair as a significant turning point. In 2013, Sinclair was court-martialed by the Army for sodomy, adultery, and other offenses. While the general escaped jail via a plea deal, the case nonetheless "shattered" the taboo of publically charging high-ranking military officers for sexual assault. It had only been the third time in six decades that a defendant of that rank, facing allegations of that kind, had been tried in a military courtroom.
The change in tide, however, appears most evident in a more recent case of Captain Brian K. Sorenson, leader of a U.S.S. Anzio, a guided missile cruiser. Last August, Sorenson reportedly got intoxicated in a Virginia pub with his fellow sailors, only to later inappropriately touch a female sailor, make verbal advances towards her, and even command her to report to his quarters. Sorenson was later confronted by his sailors and blamed them for letting him get too drunk. Sorenson has since been found guilty of sexual harassment and conduct unbecoming an officer. He is currently facing discharge proceedings.
PROGRESS STILL TO BE MADE
As encouraging as the recent statics are, the lack of transparency when dealing with officer's sexual misconduct is still evident in some cases. Records show that the Marine Corps filed sex-abuse charges against one Col. T. Shane Tomko, formerly of the Wounded Warrior Regiment in Quantico. Those records, however, had to be requested and were initially kept secret by the Marines. They now show that Tomko is accused of abusive sexual contact, obstruction of justice, and possession of steroids.
A deeper dig into Tomko's history shows that this is not the first time he had been accused of sexual assault. One dismissed 2014 lawsuit against him details an incident with a civilian woman during an official trip to London and another with a second civilian woman who was working for the Wounded Warrior Regiment. There was no public announcement of any of the allegations against Tomko.
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