WASHINGTON — The Army has disqualified 588 soldiers as sexual assault counselors, recruiters and drill sergeants for infractions ranging from sexual assault to child abuse to drunken driving, USA TODAY has learned.
The number of disqualified soldiers from what are called "positions of trust" is 10 times higher than the initial number the Army reported last summer after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered that troops in sensitive positions be screened for previous criminal or unethical behavior.
Hagel called for the review after a Pentagon study found troops reported that incidents of unwanted sexual contact had risen 35% from 2010 to 2012.
The Army did not provide figures on how many of the disqualified soldiers have been kicked out of the service or reassigned to other jobs.
"We will continue working to better ensure we select the very best people for these posts, and that the chain of command knows what is expected of them, and how important this work is to the Army," Army Col. David Patterson, a spokesman, said in a statement.
Top brass have branded sexual assault in the military a crisis and vowed in testimony on Capitol Hill to eliminate it. Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, both members of the Armed Services Committee, have rolled out competing proposals to bolster prosecution of sexual assault cases and to aid victims.
Gillibrand's measure would strip authority from commanders to decide the cases that get prosecuted, and put the decision in the hands of career military prosecutors. McCaskill's approach retains the commander's input, but prevents them from overturning convictions.
The number of soldiers disqualified, Gillibrand said, indicates the need for radical reform of the military's approach to sexual assault prosecution.
"These continued reports paint a very clear picture of why nine out of 10 sexual assault victims don't report their attack and why the military needs a reformed, independent and transparent system of justice," Gillibrand said.
McCaskill said she was encouraged that her push for a comprehensive review of soldiers involved in sexual assault and prevention had weeded out bad characters.
"The Army's review of soldiers responsible for combating sexual assault was an important step in our effort to curb sexual assaults in the military," McCaskill said.
The Army suspended 55 soldiers last summer after an initial review. Then investigators combed through more records of 20,000 others and disqualified 588 soldiers in total. The Navy dropped three of 5,125 recruiters it had reviewed, and two of 4,739 counselors. None of its 869 recruit instructors was disqualified. The Air Force and Marine Corps reported that none of their servicemembers had been disqualified.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has been a persistent critic of the military's response to the crisis and also has pushed for changes. She praised the Pentagon for addressing the issue, but questioned why the other services reported few if any problem troops.
"The numbers are staggering," Speier said. "I also want to applaud the leadership in the Department of Defense for scrubbing what has been a cancerous culture."
The Army's problem could stem from its recruiting woes during the worst stretch of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The services struggled to recruit, and the Army lowered its standards and gave waivers for criminal records to some who sought to join.