Military News

In war against sexual assault, the Army keeps shooting itself in the foot

To mark the end of Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April, the 188th Infantry Brigade held a potluck luncheon here at the largest Army installation east of the Mississippi River. The deputy commander reminded his soldiers they were all “responsible for bringing an end to sexual assault and harassment,” according to the brigade’s Facebook account.

What most of the soldiers didn’t know was that the deputy commander, Lt. Col. Michael Kepner II, was himself facing court-martial on charges that he had sexually harassed and assaulted a female lieutenant on his staff.

Despite repeated complaints from the victim and other officers, Kepner’s chain of command violated Army rules and allowed him to stay in a leadership post for at least eight months while he was under criminal investigation, internal Army emails and memos show. He later pleaded guilty to some of the charges and is serving time in a military prison.

For the past two years, the Pentagon has acknowledged having a severe problem with sexual assault in the ranks. Military leaders have promised Congress, the White House and their own troops that they are redoubling efforts to protect victims and punish offenders.

But those pledges have been undermined by a string of previously undisclosed cases in which soldiers entrusted with key roles in the campaign against sexual assault and harassment have, in turn, been accused of committing those very offenses, according to a Washington Post investigation.

The Army Reserve’s 80th Training Command summoned about 350 personnel to an Orlando hotel in 2013 for a four-day conference on sexual-assault prevention. One session highlighted how excessive drinking is often at the root of sex crimes committed by those in uniform.

Soon after the conference began, sheriff’s deputies were called to the hotel to investigate a report that a female guest had been raped by one of the participants – an inebriated soldier she had met at the hotel pool.

The two-star general in charge couldn’t believe it when aides told him what had happened. Maj. Gen. William Gerety “turned beet red” and uttered an expletive, according to an Army inspector general’s report obtained by The Post under the Freedom of Information Act.

In a separate case in Florida, the Pentagon in October removed the leader of a military training institute dedicated to the prevention of discrimination and sexual misconduct.

Seven female employees told investigators that the commandant, Army Col. Morris “Reese” Turner, had inappropriately hugged them, rubbed their shoulders or touched them without consent, documents show. Turner acknowledged to investigators that he was a “touchy-feely” person but denied wrongdoing.

The Army concluded that he had committed assault when he touched two of the seven women, and it reprimanded him for creating “a hostile and ineffective work environment,” records show.

Overall, the Defense Department received 6,131 reports of sexual assault last year, a figure that has more than doubled since 2007.

According to Pentagon officials, the increase is actually a sign of progress. They say troops are more likely to report assaults than in the past because they have more faith in the military to properly investigate such crimes.

That assertion, however, has been undercut by a rash of scandals.

In March, a sexual-assault-prevention officer for an Army battalion at Fort Hood, Texas, pleaded guilty to acting as a pimp by luring cash-strapped young female soldiers into a prostitution ring.

Last year, the Army disciplined its former top sex-crimes prosecutor after receiving a complaint that he had kissed and groped a female officer – while attending a conference on sexual assault.

OTHER BRANCHES

Other branches of the armed forces haven’t been immune.

Members of Congress publicly excoriated the Air Force two years ago after the officer in charge of its sexual-assault-prevention programs was arrested outside a bar for allegedly grabbing a woman’s buttocks. The officer was acquitted in civilian court, but he received a reprimand from the Air Force and was removed from his job.

Still, the Army has a particularly spotty record on putting the right people in such sensitive roles. Last year, the service fired or reassigned 588 people from their jobs as victim counselors, military recruiters and “positions of trust” after background checks revealed a history of sex crimes, child abuse, drunken driving and other offenses.

Army leaders declined interview requests for this article.

In a statement, Lt. Col. Ben Garrett, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, said the service “has refined and enhanced its screening and selection processes to ensure that only the most qualified people are assigned to provide support and assistance to the victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment.”

“When these individuals engage in misconduct or fail to meet the Army’s exacting standards for these critical positions,” he added, “the Army takes appropriate action to hold them accountable.”

Don Christensen, president of Protect our Defenders, a victim-advocacy group, said the armed forces have hamstrung themselves by filling sexual-assault-prevention jobs with poorly trained personnel. Just as people start to gain experience, they typically rotate to new assignments within a year or two as part of the military’s “revolving-door mentality,” he said.

The system shows that the military “doesn’t really take sexual assault seriously and just plugs somebody in without vetting them,” said Christensen, a retired colonel who once served as the Air Force’s chief prosecutor. “You keep churning people through the program, and eventually you’re going to end up with people who are bad.”

Commanders at Fort Stewart – home to the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division – received a series of blunt warnings that they were mishandling the case of Kepner, the lieutenant colonel accused of sexual assault.

Kepner was placed under criminal investigation in September 2014 after a lieutenant under his command reported that he had sexually harassed her over several months and repeatedly pressured her to have sex.

The harassment turned physical, culminating in two back-to-back incidents in which he grabbed her by the neck and pushed her against a wall, according to charging documents.

Agents from the Army Criminal Investigation Command confronted Kepner. He acknowledged that he had put his hands on the female officer’s shoulders, pressed her against the wall and made several comments.

Kepner played down his remarks as “playful banter.” He told agents that he stopped after the female officer said, “Sir, no!”

Kepner and his military attorney declined to comment for this article.

Under Army policy, criminal suspects must be removed from leadership positions and lose their security clearances until their cases are resolved. A few days after Kepner was placed under investigation, he was relieved as commander of the 83rd Chemical Battalion.

But instead of sidelining him, Kepner’s superiors placed him in a more important post. He became deputy commander of a larger unit: the 188th Infantry Brigade. He also kept his security clearance.

Records show that Army brass assured Kepner’s victim that he would be restricted to “making coffee and paper airplanes” in his new role as the deputy brigade commander. In fact, he frequently served as the brigade’s acting commander and led the unit in training exercises, according to the documents.

After a five-month investigation, Kepner was formally charged with sexual assault, violating a protective order and other crimes.

A separate disciplinary investigation concluded that Kepner had sexually harassed the lieutenant “on an almost daily basis.” That investigation found he had also harassed a second female lieutenant in the same unit.

“It was rare to have a conversation without him turning it sexual,” the second lieutenant told investigators in a statement. “His comments were so frequent, it was almost predictable.”

Other evidence surfaced. A major told investigators that Kepner had once undermined a sexual-assault-prevention class at Fort Stewart.

After instructors presented a case study about a sergeant who sexually assaulted a drunk female soldier, Kepner took his battalion aside to offer a different view, according to the major’s statement.

Kepner told his soldiers that there was “another side” to the story: The married sergeant had actually been trying to protect the drunk soldier by giving her a ride home.

In Kepner’s retelling, the sergeant “gave in to temptation” after the woman subjected him to sexual advances. Kepner asserted that the sergeant’s actions were understandable because he was just a “man being a man,” the documents show.

Despite the sexual-harassment findings and the criminal charges against Kepner, the Army allowed him to continue as deputy brigade commander – alarming some Fort Stewart officials.

“I am concerned about the message it sends to the victim and Soldiers in the unit that he is still in a leadership position, not to mention the impact if the media caught wind,” Lt. Col. William Anderson, the officer in charge of Fort Stewart’s sexual-assault-prevention programs, wrote in a Feb. 18 email to Col. Vernon Miranda, the 3rd Infantry Division’s chief of staff. Miranda did not respond to requests for comment.

The warning went unheeded. Two months later, Kepner spoke at the luncheon to commemorate Sexual Assault Awareness Month, according to the brigade’s Facebook account. (The Army recently deleted the Facebook postings after The Post asked about them.)

Meanwhile, Kepner’s primary victim and her advocates were growing even more exasperated.

On May 27, the victim filed a congressional complaint with Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Armed Services Committee.

“This is fundamentally wrong,” the victim wrote. “I’ve been patient and have tried to trust the system, but my patience has run out.”

She accused senior Army officials of “protecting” Kepner and added: “This is why women in the military do not report sexual assault.”

Kepner was removed as deputy brigade commander after the congressional complaint.

During his court-martial in September, he pleaded guilty to assaulting the lieutenant – albeit not sexually – as part of a deal with prosecutors. He was sentenced to four months in prison.

He has not been discharged from the Army but probably will be forced to retire after 22 years of service, including four deployments to Iraq.

“I made a mistake. I screwed up,” he testified at trial. “I apologize for what I thought was a consensual relationship. I didn’t mean to terrorize anyone.”

Capt. Christopher Cusmano, an Army lawyer who served as a legal advocate for the victim, said he still cannot understand why the Army allowed Kepner to stay in a leadership post for so long. He said it was appalling that Kepner gave public remarks to promote Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

“What’s happened in this case has just blown me away left and right,” he said.

Senior officers at Fort Stewart declined interview requests.

In a statement, Lt. Col. Amanda Azubuike, a spokeswoman for the 3rd Infantry Division, said Fort Stewart leaders “take incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault very seriously and are deeply concerned and disturbed by what the victim had to go through.”

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