Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., questions top officials of the Air Force about how they are dealing with the controversy over sexual assaults and how the
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., questions top officials of the Air Force about how they are dealing with the controversy over sexual assaults and how the military justice system handles it, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (J. Scott Applewhite, The Associated Press)

The escalating number of sexual assaults in the military bespeak a crisis that has been in the making for decades.

It's shameful that the Pentagon has not effectively dealt with the issue, and there's little reason to believe that will change without dramatic reform in the way sex assaults are reported and investigated.

The issue resurfaced this week with the release of a Pentagon study that showed a big jump in sex assaults, most of them unreported. The report, based on anonymous surveys, showed about a 35 percent surge in those crimes over the past two years.

Even if some of the increase is attributable to a greater willingness to report unwanted sexual conduct, 26,000 incidents in 2012 is an epidemic no matter how you slice it.

Roughly coinciding with the release of these shocking numbers was the revelation of an incident that seemed to perfectly illustrate what ails the military.

A lieutenant colonel, who until Monday had been chief of the Air Force's sex assault and prevention branch, was arrested and accused of groping a woman while drunk. This allegedly happened in a strip club parking lot a mile from the Pentagon.


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These developments have added urgency to the sex assault issue. The president vowed his administration would "exponentially step up" its game to deal with the issue.

The problem is, we've been here before. Remember the Air Force Academy rape scandal in the early 2000s? Or Tailhook, the 1991 debacle in which naval and marine aviators sexually abused female officers at a Las Vegas convention?

Nearly 20 years ago, The Denver Post editorialized that Tailhook showed how sexual misconduct allegations are at risk of being whitewashed when addressed through the normal chain of command. Stunningly, that situation still is cited as one of the major reasons why victims are reluctant to report sex assaults.

This is the syndrome that U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., hopes to address with a measure she'll introduce to amend the military code.

It would ensure military prosecutors are in charge of all decisions on sex assaults, taking a victim's commander out of the equation. It's an important change that would eliminate potential conflicts of interest for commanders.

Unfortunately, the military is resisting the reform instead of embracing it. It's one thing to recognize a problem and promise cultural change in an organization as rigid as the military, but it's another entirely to take steps to make it happen.