The Army removed 588 soldiers from so-called positions of trust, such as sexual assault counselors and recruiters, after finding they had committed infractions such as sexual assault, child abuse and drunken driving, officials said Wednesday.
The Army said it reviewed the qualifications and records of 20,000 soldiers and found nearly 600 unsuitable for their jobs as recruiters, drill sergeants, training school instructors and staff of sexual assault prevention and response programs. The news comes amid reports of military sex assaults rising to historic levels.
Nearly 80 percent of women serving in the military since Vietnam have experienced sexual assault, reports Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), an advocacy group serving military sexual assault survivors. Yet, more than three quarters of the victims do not report the crime, according to the Department of Defense.
It was unclear precisely when the review was completed, whether the infractions were committed during or before military service and whether offenders were simply reassigned to other posts or court martialed.
"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," Col. David Patterson, an Army spokesman, said in a statement.
Greg Jacob, SWAN's policy director, said the news was disheartening.
"Today's announcement raises serious questions regarding the military's screening process. Now, we have to wonder, especially with regard to the other branches, how many more of these bad apples remain in these positions?" said Jacob, who served in the Marines.
The move resulted from orders by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last year that all the services review the qualifications of people holding those jobs as part of an effort to stem a rising number of sexual assaults in the military.
The screenings followed a May report estimating that between 2011 and 2012, 26,000 service members experienced unwanted sexual contact, a term that includes completed or attempted penetration or touching of "sexually related areas" — a 35 percent increase versus the year before.
The Navy looked at some 11,000 employees and found five unqualified. The Air Force and Marine Corps did not respond requests for information about their reviews. But USA Today, which first reported the results of the reviews, said the Air Force and Marines found no one to disqualify.
It was unclear why the other service branches reported so few problems, but Pentagon officials told the Associated Press one likely reason was that the Army did a more stringent review, going beyond what Hagel had ordered.
The Army scrutinized not only its recruiting and sex assault response and prevention staffs, but also people in other jobs it calls "positions of trust," such as the drill sergeants and other training instructors. It scoured their records for a broader range of problem behaviors, officials said.
“Mostly my reaction is one of shock that there were so many people with these kinds of issues in these particular kinds of sensitive positions, particularly recruiting, because the opportunities for misconduct are ever present in that field,” Eugene Fiddel, a teacher of military justice at Yale Law School, told Al Jazeera.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon's press secretary, noted the extra work done by the Army.
Hagel "was happy to learn that the Army widened the scope of their review, and he is grateful for the work they have done to get a better grip on a very difficult issue and hold people accountable," Kirby said.
Hagel and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke at a Pentagon news conference one day after all of the military's highest uniformed and civilian leadership were summoned to the White House to discuss the sexual assault problem with President Barack Obama, who has expressed impatience with the Pentagon's failure to solve it.
"I am concerned that this department may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime — and the perception that there is tolerance of it — could very well undermine our ability to effectively carry out the mission, and to recruit and retain good people," Hagel wrote in his May order to the services.
The issue of sexual assaults has gripped the military in the last year after a series of high-profile cases from its academy students to generals. Outrage among lawmakers has produced new ideas for tightening the way sexual assault cases are handled in the military justice system.
Meanwhile, the department reported at a congressional hearing Wednesday that preliminary figures show the number of reported sexual assaults across the military shot up to 5,400 in fiscal year 2013, three times that of 2004.
Defense officials have said the rise suggests victims are becoming more willing to come forward after a tumultuous year of scandals that shined a spotlight on the crimes and put pressure on the military to take a number of steps. But advocates said the actual number of assaults is much higher and is likely to remain unknown. The Pentagon found half of all assaults are not reported for fear of retaliation or because victims fear nothing will be done.
At the hearing, former Army Pvt. Jessica Kenyon, who says she was the survivor of rape, called out the system’s flaws.
"The truth was at that point I had to Google what to do when it happened to me. I immediately experienced the flaws and repercussions.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who heard Kenyon's testimony and introduced a bill that would remove decision-making authority on matters of sexual assault from the victim's chain of command, had harsh words on the problem of sexual assault in the military.
Kenyon compared said the experience felt like incest, prompting Gillibrand to remark that there were multiple betrayals in the current system, according to the Democrat and Chronicle, a Rochester, N.Y., paper.
"I've just heard one victim say it's like being raped by your brother, and your father decides the case," Gillibrand said.
"So the reference to incest goes beyond who the rapist is. … It's not just one betrayal."
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press. Wilson Dizard contributed to this report.