The military promised to crack down on sexual assault. Have they?

HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: For more than a decade, the Pentagon has promised to do better handling cases of sexual misconduct in the ranks of the U.S. military, but progress has been slow. While service members are more willing to come forward, the Pentagon estimates that nearly 15,000 military members experienced a sexual assault last year.

Today's "Washington Post" highlights how a complaint against one senior air force officer was handled, in secret, as 90 percent of the cases are, and resulted in very little punishment.

Reporter Craig Whitlock wrote that article and joins me now from Washington.

Let's kind of talk about the bigger picture first before we get down to this example for a second. How prevalent are sexual assaults? Are they getting better or worse?

CRAIG WHITLOCK, REPORTER, WASHINGTON POST: Well, that's a good question. We don't know. Last year, there were over 6,000 reported, a new high. The Pentagon says that is a sign of confidence in the system that more people are willing to come forward, at the same time their survey shows that that's only a fraction, maybe one-third of the number of people who actually experience sexual assault. The Pentagon talks about how it has zero tolerance, but still, several thousand people a year report sexual assault.

SREENIVASAN: All right. In this particular case, you focus in on an air force colonel. What happened?

WHITLOCK: So, in this case, it's an air force colonel named Ronald Jobo. You know, colonel is a pretty senior officer in the military, one step down from a general. And he was harassing a woman under his command. And he started out harassing her with texts saying he wanted to have a relationship. And it escalated pretty quickly to the point where he was forcefully grabbing her in the office, to the point where he left bruises on her arms.

She reported it to the Air Force. They investigated it promptly. But in the end, rather than take this colonel to a court martial and charge him with a crime, which is what the investigators thought the evidence warranted, a three-star general who under the military system of justice decided that it was more appropriate to give him a light punishment, discipline, which resulted in him being forced to retire from the Air Force. But no criminal charges, no jail time, nothing like that.

And because it's a disciplinary case, it was all handled behind closed doors, and there was no public record of it.

SREENIVASAN: You know, when I read this story, the thing that leapt out at me was sometimes I saw these parallels between, so the Spotlight investigation and how it revealed the malpractices in the Catholic Church.

WHITLOCK: The echoes with the church scandal, the Catholic Church, are there. I mean, the Catholic Church leadership repeatedly assured the public and the faithful that they were handling these cases. They were going to be strict and not sweep them under the rug.

And we've heard the same thing from the military leadership. They are imploring sexual assault victims to report the crimes by reassuring them that they will be taken seriously.

And yet as the case we found, the woman originally was reluctant to report it. Others in the Air Force told her, no, look, you have to report this. You have to trust the system. If you don't, we will.

So she did, and in the end, the colonel got off with a very light punishment. It wasn't held accountable in a court of law and she ended up having to transfer to a new job for the Air Force. So, she feels like– she suffered in the end by reporting it.

SREENIVASAN: And besides the actual assaults that she faced and in this specific case, it almost seems to cause a rift in the trust that people have of an institution.

WHITLOCK: This is something the military I think has struggled with. A lot of people in the military see up front that these cases once they are involved in it, or they are aware of it are not handled how they are supposed to be. So, of course, that does undermine trust in the system and leads to people either not reporting it or leaving the military or suffering.

SREENIVASAN: Yes.

WHITLOCK: But it certainly doesn't lead to trust.

SREENIVASAN: Craig Whitlock of "The Washington Post" joining us today, thanks so much.

WHITLOCK: Thank you so much.

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