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Dorr: Air Force works its way to zero tolerance for sexual assault

Jun. 6, 2013 - 12:06PM   |  
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Sex. Keep it out of the workplace. Keep it off the flight line and out of the back shops.

Sex. Keep it out of the workplace. Keep it off the flight line and out of the back shops.

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Keep it out of the workplace. Keep it off the flight line and out of the back shops.

Pentagon leaders acknowledge they’re having difficulty with the spectrum of sex-related issues, from inappropriate materials in the office to groping to assault. But from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on down, they’re making progress and deserve credit for it.

It didn’t help that Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh blamed an increase in sexual assault on the “hookup” culture prevalent among young Americans during May 7 Senate testimony. Welsh later said he hadn’t meant to blame victims of sexual malfeasance.

It didn’t help, either, that the military suffered embarrassing incidents in which midlevel leaders tasked with educating others on sexual conduct stand accused, themselves, of offenses.

In the most publicized of these cases, a lieutenant colonel who headed the Air Force’s sexual assault and prevention office was arrested May 5 and charged with sexual battery. The offense: a misdemeanor count of groping.

It’s merciful for him that the Commonwealth of Virginia, where the deed allegedly was done, doesn’t have a statute prohibiting stupidity.

Hagel, Welsh and others have stopped short of proclaiming “zero tolerance” toward sexual misconduct but are acting to enforce just such a policy. “You’ve got to expect some misbehavior,” a senior officer told me.

Hagel and Welsh don’t appear to think so. I don’t either.

Even senators who voted against Hagel’s appointment as Pentagon boss now say he’s performing well. Despite one gaffe, Welsh is widely seen as a strong and serious leader.

The Air Force has already done a good job of cleaning up peripheral issues, such as inappropriate, sex-related photos and magazines in the workplace.

But the Air Force can’t prevent sexual assault? No one is going to convince me.

For decades now, women have been communicating a message that’s simple, straightforward and easy to understand. No means no.

We already have rules against persons of higher rank consorting with subordinates.

Welsh and other leaders are moving toward the solution to other forms of sexual misconduct. They’re showing they are serious about stamping out sexual transgressions.

That means serious and severe penalties for sexual assault. Being forced to retire isn’t enough. Being thrown into the slammer is sometimes the right action and sends a stronger message.

Also needed: strong punishment for false accusers.

It can be done. It is being done. Even where they’ve flubbed a word here or there, Pentagon leaders are acting. It appears to me that they’re going to create a culture of zero tolerance. They deserve credit for moving in that direction. They need our help getting there.

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