Pentagon grapples with sex crimes by recruiters

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WASHINGTON -- Military recruiters across the country have been caught in a string of sex-crime scandals over the past year, exposing another long-standing problem for the Defense Department as it grapples with a crisis of sexual assault in the ranks.

In Alaska, law enforcement officials are fuming after a military jury this month convicted a Marine Corps recruiter of first-degree sexual assault in the rape of a 23-year-old female civilian, but did not sentence him to prison.

In Texas, an Air Force recruiter will go on trial next month on charges of rape, forcible sodomy and other crimes involving 18 young women he tried to enlist over a three-year period. Air Force officials have described the case as perhaps the worst involving one of its recruiters.

In Maryland, Army officials are still puzzling over a murder-suicide in April, when a staff sergeant, Adam Arndt, killed himself after he fatally shot Michelle Miller, a 17-year-old Germantown, Md., girl whom he had been recruiting for the Army Reserves. Officials suspect the two were romantically involved, something expressly forbidden by military rules.

Leaders of the armed services said they place enormous emphasis on ethical behavior and professional conduct when selecting and training recruiters, who are a fixture in high schools everywhere and critical to the nation's all-volunteer military. Only a tiny percentage of recruiters engage in sexual misconduct, officials said, and there is no tolerance for those who do.

The extent of the problem is hard to ascertain because the Defense Department does not keep figures on recruiters accused of sex crimes. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps track incidents separately, but there is no uniform standard, which makes statistical comparisons difficult.

In most cases, the victims are teenagers or young adults who have expressed an interest in a military career but have not enlisted. As a result, they are excluded from Pentagon surveys that show an alarming rise in the number of active-duty military personnel who say they have been sexually assaulted.

"Anecdotally, we absolutely hear that this is a problem," said Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain who is executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, an advocacy group. "There certainly is a power dynamic there that makes it a target-rich environment for a predator."

In several cases over the past year, recruiters have been charged or convicted of having sex with underage girls whom they were trying to recruit, despite strict rules against fraternization or even spending time alone with high-school-age youths.

In Oregon, an Army staff sergeant pleaded guilty in March to having sex with a 17-year-old girl in a recruiting office. In Arizona, an Army staff sergeant was charged in November with having a sexual relationship with a minor after he allegedly took a 16-year-old student to a park on multiple occasions and exchanged nude photos with her.

In Oklahoma, an Air Force staff sergeant was convicted of dereliction of duty by a military court in November after he had sex with a recruit, in another relationship that began with sexually explicit text messages.

Around the same time, officials with the Air Force Recruiting Service said they redoubled their efforts to ensure that recruiters don't cross the line. The impetus was a sex scandal at the Air Force's basic-training school at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where more than 30 instructors have been investigated for abusing or mistreating recruits.

The Air Force has since required recruiters to undergo "enhanced" and more frequent training, "just a constant reminder of what's acceptable," said Col. Michael Vlk, vice commander of the recruiting service, headquartered at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas.

Since 2008, the Air Force has court-martialed an average of four recruiters a year for sexual misconduct or unprofessional relationships, officials said. A smaller number received lesser forms of discipline.

The Army Recruiting Command, based at Fort Knox, Ky., has recorded a far higher number of sexual misconduct cases. Over the past five years, 387 incidents were investigated. Of those, 327 were "substantiated," said Lt. Col. S. Justin Platt, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon. The Army has about 10,800 recruiters, by far the most of any of the armed services.

Of the Navy's 6,200 recruiters, two dozen have been accused of sexual assault since 2010, according to the Navy Recruiting Command in Millington, Tenn., which did not provide further details.

The Marine Corps Recruiting Command at Quantico, Va., did not provide figures, although a Marine spokesman said the number of recruiters who are found guilty each year of sexual assault or nonconsensual sex was in "the single digits."



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