Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krunsinski arrives at the Arlington County Courthouse with his attorney, Sheryl Shane, to be arraigned on a misdemeanor sexual battery charge Thursday in Arlington, Va. (Thomas Brown / staff)
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The Crystal City, Va., parking lot where Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krunsinski allegedly approached a female and grabbed her breast and buttocks. (Thomas Brown / staff)
The dust had yet to settle on one sexual assault scandal before the Air Force found itself at the center of another.
Early May 5, the chief of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office was charged with sexual battery after he allegedly grabbed a woman in a restaurant parking lot in Arlington, Va.
The timing could hardly have been worse. The conflagration sparked by a three-star general’s decision to overturn a sexual assault conviction earlier this year still has lawmakers and victim advocates heated.
Just two days after the arrest of Lt. Col. Jeff Krusinski — who headed SAPRO for just two months — the Defense Department announced military sex crimes were on the rise. In the same week, the 19th military training instructor was convicted in a sexual misconduct scandal that has plagued the service’s basic training corps since June 2011.
Neither Air Force leaders nor lawmakers minced words over the latest embarrassment, calling the arrest of Krusinski appalling, outrageous, disgusting. He was removed from his position May 6.
The arrest also amplified calls by legislators to strip commanders of the longstanding authority to overturn convictions and reduce sentences without an explanation. Both Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said they support such a change but have stopped short of endorsing a special victims unit that would handle sex crimes outside the chain of command, as some have insisted is necessary.
“When I saw [news of Krusinski’s arrest] it literally made me sick to my stomach,” Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said in a statement. “How many more reasons do we need to take cases of rape and sexual assault out of the chain of command?”
Lawmakers, including Speier, have introduced bills in the House and Senate that would curb the convening authority’s clemency power.
On May 8, Reps. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., and Mike Turner, R-Ohio, co-chairs of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, introduced a bill that would make a dismissal or dishonorable discharge mandatory for any military member convicted of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy or an attempt to commit such crimes. It would also eliminate the current five-year statute of limitations on trial by court-martial on sex crimes.
“Since taking on this issue over 7 years ago, I have grown more troubled by the military’s resistance to change its culture,” Turner said in a statement. “With the unilateral decision by Lt. Gen. [Craig] Franklin to overturn a sexual assault conviction and rob a victim of justice, it was clear further legislative action was needed.”
In a statement, Tsongas cited the arrest of Krusinski as just one recent example of the military’s failure to handle sexual assault in the ranks. “In recent months we have seen reports rise, commanders and supervisors abuse their authority, and an officer in charge of prevention efforts allegedly commit the crimes he swore to stop. This is clearly a systemic problem and accountability is needed at every level, from everyone — officer and enlisted alike,” she said.
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, plans to co-sponsor legislation that would extend the Air Force’s program of offering special counsel for sexual assault victims to all of the services.
He attended a May 9 meeting between members of Congress and top aides to President Obama about what can be done to finally curb sexual assaults in the military.
“I just feel that having a soldier, or Marine have proper sophisticated legal counsel, experienced legal counsel will give them the courage to stand up for themselves and properly report something that may have happened and get adequate and vigorous representation,” said Ryan.
The legislation, which will be co-sponsored by Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, would also require sexual assault cases to be handled by general officers, he said.
“I think by getting it to that level, there’s a level of seriousness that is associated with it as well I think it can help shift the culture if they know that the generals are making these decisions and reviewing these decisions, as well as having some immediate expulsion and discharge after you’ve been found guilty — there’s no nonsense going on, no mitigation, you’re gone,” Ryan said.
A day after news of Krusinski’s arrest made national headlines, Welsh and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley took a battering on Capitol Hill. Allegations against the former SAPRO chief dominated much of the May 7 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the proposed 2014 Defense Authorization Act.
“If this allegation is proved true, this was not someone who understood what this job is about,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told Welsh. “I will be watching very carefully who is selected to replace Lt. Col. Krusinski because I think it is one of those times when you’ll be able to send a message, and I think it’s important we do it.”
McCaskill has put a hold on Lt. Gen. Susan Helms’ nomination to serve as the vice commander of Space Command because she overturned a sex assault conviction of a captain at Vandenburg Air Force Base, Calif., in February 2012. Helms did so against the recommendation of her staff judge advocate, according to McCaskill’s office. The senator has said she wants more information about Helms’ decision, which occurred a year before a similar ruling by another three-star general.
In the most recent case, Franklin, the commander of the Third Air Force, threw out the sexual assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, an F-16 pilot and former inspector general at Aviano Air Base, Italy. Like Helms, Franklin made his decision despite the recommendation of his staff judge advocate that the guilty verdict stand.
“In both instances, juries selected by those generals said they believed the victim,” McCaskill said. “And in both of those instances, the general said, ‘No, no, we believe the member of the military.’ That is the crux of the problem here because if a victim does not believe that the system is capable of believing her, there is no point in risking your entire career” to report a sexual assault.
Welsh’s most heated exchange was with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. “Clearly, there is insufficient training, insufficient understanding, if the man in charge for the Air Force of preventing sexual assaults is being alleged of committing sexual assault this weekend — obviously, there is a failing in training and understanding of what sexual assault is and how corrosive and damaging it is to good order and discipline,” she said.
“Do you have a sense as to why ... such a fraction [of sex assaults] are reported?” she said. “Could you surmise that it may well be that a victim has no faith in the chain of command on this issue — on this sexual assaults?”
Welsh defended the Air Force’s handling of the crime.
The main reason victims have said they do not report sexual assaults is they are ashamed to do so. In the past three years, only once out of 2,511 court cases did a commander decide not to refer sexual assault charges, he said.
“One of the issues that seems to come up routinely is this belief that the military does not prosecute as much as a local jurisdiction might,” Welsh said. The Air Force’s sexual assault prosecution rate for 2012 was one percent below the national average; the conviction rate was three percent above, he said.
“We can’t work any harder at it,” Welsh said. “We’re trying everything we can think of. The key for us is finding things that have more traction, that make more of a difference over time — focusing on those, letting some of the other stuff slide away and putting our resources into things that are game-changers. We’re still looking for them.”