LOLITA C. BALDOR
WASHINGTON (AP) -- One after another, the charges have tumbled out -- allegations of sexual assaults in the military that have triggered outrage, from local commanders to Capitol Hill and the Oval Office.
But for a Pentagon under fire, there seem to be few clear solutions beyond improved training and possible adjustments in how the military prosecutes such crimes. Changing the culture of a male-dominated, change-resistant military that for years has tolerated sexism and sexist behavior is proving to be a challenging task.
"We're losing the confidence of the women who serve that we can solve this problem," the top U.S. military officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said in unusually strong terms Wednesday. "That's a crisis."
Dempsey, whose comments during a flight from Europe to Washington were reported by the Pentagon's internal news service, suggested that a deepening of the sexual assault problem may be linked to the strains of war.
"I tasked those around me to help me understand what a decade-plus of conflict may have done to the force," he said. "Instinctively, I knew it had to have some effect."
Dempsey added: "This is not to make excuses. We should be better than this. In fact, we have to be better than this."
As new sexual assault allegations emerged this week involving an Army soldier who was assigned to prevent such crimes -- the second military member involved in similar accusations -- the Pentagon said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is working on a written directive to spell out steps aimed at resolving the escalating problem.
But President Barack Obama, fuming at a news conference last week, warned that he wanted swift and sure action, not "just more speeches or awareness programs or training." Sexual offenders need to be "prosecuted, stripped of their position, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period," he said.
"The president has made very clear his expectations on this issue," said Pentagon press secretary George Little, adding that Hagel told Obama on Tuesday about an Army sergeant first class at Fort Hood, Texas, who faces allegations of sexual misconduct. The case involves the soldier's activities with three women, including an allegation that he may have arranged for one of them to have sex for money, according to a defense official.
Those allegations come on the heels of a Pentagon report last week that estimated that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, based on survey results, out of 1.4 million in the services.
That report, and a recent series of arrests and other sexual assault problems across the military, have triggered a rush of initiatives from the Pentagon and proposed legislation on Capitol Hill.
But experts warn that stemming an increase in assaults will require concrete changes -- both in law and in military culture.
"There is not a quick fix," said Anu Bhagwati, former Marine captain and executive director of the Service Women's Action Network. "The military can't train its way out of this problem."
She said that changing the prosecution system is critical, but victims also have to be convinced that they won't be punished if they come forward. Changing the culture in the military, to foster greater respect, she said may require using outside groups and advocates to deal with assault cases so that victims don't feel intimidated by having to go to senior officers with their assault allegations.
According to Little, Hagel is considering changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice that would prevent commanders from reversing sexual assault convictions, along with other efforts to improve training, assist victims and strengthen discipline.
Hagel has also ordered the re-training, re-certifying and re-screening of all sexual assault prevention and response personnel, as well as military recruiters, who also have been accused in recent sexual misconduct cases.
"He is going to spare no effort to address the problem," Little said, adding that additional training is "foundational" to any credible effort against sexual assault. He said Hagel is "open to any and all" ideas about how to improve training, and that this will be just one element in a broader effort to fight the problem.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., plans to introduce legislation on Thursday that would reform the military justice system by taking top commanders out of the process of deciding whether a sexual misconduct case goes to trial. For sexual offenses with authorized sentences of more than one year in confinement -- akin to felonies in the civilian judicial system -- that decision would rest instead with officers at ranks as low as colonel who are seasoned trial counsels with prosecutorial experience.