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'Every American should be outraged:' Military sees sharp increase in sex assault cases

Jeremiah Arbogast

Jeremiah Arbogast, 32, a retired Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps, lives in West Virginia with his wife and 11-year-old daughter. Arbogast was sexually assaulted while serving between 1998 and 2006, and said the idea that sexual assaults may have increased dramatically in the past year "totally disgusts me."

Despite efforts to create a "military culture free of sexual assault," the Department of Defense announced Tuesday that the number of cases increased sharply in the last year, a trend that critics pointed to as proof that more aggressive measures are needed to end the epidemic. 

The annual report, released by the DoD's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, found that 3,374 incidents of "unwanted sexual contact" occurred within all branches of the Armed Forces in the 2012 fiscal year. That is a 6 percent increase from the previous year, when there were 3,192 reports.

The results of an anonymous survey, however, present a much more alarming picture: 26,000 respondents said they had been sexually assaulted in the past year, compared to 19,000 respondents in last year's survey. 

Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., was briefed by Pentagon officials on the report earlier today and told NBC News that the increase appears to represent an actual rise in the number of assaults rather than a growing willingness to report cases anonymously. 

The figures were released a day after the announcement that Air Force Lt. Col. Jeff Krusinski had been removed from his position as branch chief for the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office after being charged with sexual battery. A drunken Krusinski allegedly approached the woman in a parking lot in Arlington, Va., and grabbed her breasts and buttocks, according to a police report.

Tsongas said she was "astonished and outraged" upon hearing of Krusinski's arrest. 

The report released Tuesday, Tsongas said, indicated that though "we've put many more tools in the toolbox ... it's clear to me there's much more work to be done" in changing the military's culture with regard to sexual assault. 

"Every American should be outraged by the disturbing numbers from this year's Defense Department sexual assault report," Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Washington, D.C., advocacy organization Service Women's Action Network, said in a statement to NBC News.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel condemned the trend in the report, calling sexual assault a "crime that is incompatible with military service." 

'They're just not getting it'
President Barack Obama, who spoke with Hagel on Tuesday, said he has "no tolerance" for sexual assault in the military.

"I expect consequences," Obama added. "So I don’t just want more speeches or awareness programs or training, but ultimately folks look the other way. If we find out somebody’s engaging in this, they’ve got to be held accountable — prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period."

Jeremiah Arbogast, 32, a retired Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps who was sexually assaulted while serving between 1998 and 2006, was ecstatic that the president spoke so forcefully. 

The idea that sexual assaults may have increased dramatically in the past year "totally disgusts me," he said. “I think it’s very appalling that they’re just not getting it.” 

Jeremiah Arbogast

"I love the Marine Corps and military with all my heart, but I want to rid the military of these sick individuals," Jeremiah Arbogast told NBC News.

Arbogast, who has advocated for legislation that would change the way the military handles sexual assaults, was drugged and attacked by a staff sergeant in 2000. He experienced post-traumatic stress after the assault, and in 2009, attempted suicide with a firearm. The gunshot wound left him a paraplegic. 

“I was going to make a career out of the Marine Corps and I didn’t think this was going to happen to me,” said Arbogast. “I love the Marine Corps and military with all my heart, but I want to rid the military of these sick individuals.” 

Arbogast believes that training materials like books, brochures and videos won’t fix a problem that is deeply rooted in both unjust policies and a dysfunctional culture. 

For example, commanders must be stripped of their ability to reverse a guilty verdict in a sexual assault case, he said. The Air Force was again the subject of controversy recently when Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin overturned the conviction of an F-16 pilot, Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, after he’d been found guilty of aggravated sexual assault of a civilian contractor. 

“As a survivor, it makes you feel that regardless of what happens to you, that there is no justice, that your voice is never heard,” Arbogast said of overturned convictions. 

'Chilling effect'
Rep. Tsongas, who also supports a revision of the rule known as Article 60, said that Secretary Hagel has shown a willingness to modify it, and that she is looking at ways to put such changes into law. 

There are a number of legislative proposals to address perceived problems with how the military investigates and prosecutes sexual assault cases. On Tuesday, Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) introduced the Combating Military Sexual Assault Act of 2013, which calls for providing victims with a military lawyer and improving the ability of the DoD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Office to collect and track statistics on the number of cases and prosecutions, among other measures. 

While 3,374 incidents were reported in the last fiscal year, some accused assailants were not under the military’s legal authority or allegations against them were found to be “false” or “baseless.” Some victims also requested that their cases not be investigated. Of the 1,714 offenders that could be investigated, according to the Pentagon report, commanders had enough evidence to punish 66 percent of them, an increase from 57 percent in the 2009 fiscal year. 

Tsongas said that she was particularly concerned about the nearly two-thirds of victims who reported professional or administrative retaliation once they stepped forward with an accusation. “That’s an alarming number,” she said. “You can just guess the chilling effect it has on those thinking of coming forward.”

Arbogast, who lives in Fort Ashby, W.V. with his wife and 11-year-old daughter, remains involved with the military as an athlete in wounded warrior sporting events. He is hopeful that the outrage about the new figures will spark change within the military. 

“If I had the opportunity to travel to every base to speak weekly, I would do it just to flush these people out of the system,” he said. “It’s an important issue and I think people need to take it seriously, because if they don’t the numbers will keep rising.”