This week, the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on a repulsive topic: the large number of military men -- generally considered American "heroes" -- who rape fellow troops.
The Pentagon estimates that a sickening 26,000 sexual assaults occurred last year -- up from 19,000 the year before. Since the military has relatively few females, they suffer a high rate of attacks. But, surprisingly, more than half of the assaults were male-on-male.
What a hideous picture of military life. Parents and young people -- of either gender -- should ponder this ugly reality soberly before enlistment.
In civilian life, if a woman is assaulted, she usually can count on swift police action and prosecution of her attacker. If she suffers sexual harassment at work, she can sue her employer and win solid payment. But things are different in the military, where a macho mentality prevails and enlistees have little chance to act in their own behalf.
"There's no freedom of movement, no right to quit your job. You're forced to coexist with your perpetrator," former Marine Capt. Ann Bhagwati said in an Associated Press analysis. Victims usually don't report assaults because they think the military won't give them fair hearings. Commanders don't want their units to be disgraced by rape prosecutions, so they tend to suppress complaints.
"Commanders have the power to destroy your career, to make your life a living hell," retired Air Force Col. Katherine Scheirman said. "If it was a commander who assaulted you, you'd be delusional to think that if you reported it, any justice would be done."
Although the Pentagon estimated 26,000 attacks in 2012, only 3,374 actually were reported -- and just 238 led to convictions.
"That means there are thousands of felons walking around -- free and dangerous -- in the military today," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a member of the Armed Services Committee, told generals and admirals during the hearing:
"There is a history of sexual assault repeating itself, and nothing has been done. With each sexual assault case that has caught public scrutiny in the past, Department of Defense leaders tell us, 'never again,' or 'we have zero tolerance for such inappropriate actions.' But what has changed?"
The Senate is pondering a bill to take rape cases out of the hands of unit commanders and let outside prosecutors handle them. That sounds sensible.
We hope all West Virginia members of Congress support every possible step to curtail this grotesque blight on America's all-volunteer military.