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The Pentagon has announced initial deployments of 600 US ground troops to Eastern Europe, a presence which officials say will be sustained “until further notice.”

The troops will be split evenly, roughly 150 per country, among Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and is aimed at reassuring them over what the Pentagon dubbed “Russian aggression.”

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Jihadists Now Control Secretive U.S. Base in Libya

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Army disqualifies 588 soldiers from ‘positions of trust’

About 5,400 instances of sexual assault or “unwanted sexual contact” were reported within the U.S. military last fiscal year, a 60 percent rise from 2012, the Pentagon said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Army reported it had suspended hundreds of sexual assault response coordinators, recruiters and others in “positions of responsibility” for a range of missteps including sexual assault and alcohol abuse.

The Pentagon’s preliminary sexual assault tally for fiscal 2013, which ended Sept. 30, has risen since late December, when the military reported slightly more than 5,000 incidents. The number could rise again before a final report for 2013, Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Cathy Wilkinson said.

gilibrandIn fiscal 2012, military members reported 3,374 instances of unwanted sexual contact. Defense official estimated the true number was about 26,000, based on a “prevalence survey” given to troops.

The survey, which indicates that fewer than 20 percent of such incidents are reported, is conducted every second year, meaning no estimate for the total number of incidents will be available for 2013.

The latest number came out in panel discussion during a Senate hearing Wednesday to discuss the links between sexual assault, PTSD and suicide. The hearing was run by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who’s spearheading an effort to overhaul prosecutions of serious crimes in the military in order to better protect sexual assault victims.

Gillibrand said late Wednesday that her bill, the Military Justice Improvement Act, had received unanimous consent from senators to move forward to debate on Senate floor. Although a majority of senators have indicated they support the bill to strip military commanders of authority over major criminal prosecutions, not enough have yet signed on to bypass a filibuster that opponents have promised.

More than 600 of the incidents, or about 11 percent, occurred prior to service members entering the military, Wilkinson said. In 2012, only 3.4 percent of reports were from events prior to military service.

Defense officials regard the increase as a sign that confidence in the military sexual assault reporting system is growing, she said.

The Army, which announced it had disqualified 588 out of about 20,000 soldiers in “positions of trust” is in the process of deciding whether those suspended can remain in the service, a spokesman at the Pentagon said.

“To date, 79 are pending separation from the Army,” Col. David H. Patterson Jr. said. “However, others could face further actions from their commands.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last May ordered the services to conduct a “stand down” to review the credentials and backgrounds of recruiters and sexual assault response personnel.

In August, the Army announced it had suspended 55 sexual assault counselors, drill instructors, recruiters and others, less than one-tenth of the eventual number pulled out of their jobs.

“The Army continues to ensure that those in positions of personal trust have the right tools, skills and background needed to carry out their duties effectively,” Patterson said. “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.”

According to a report in USA Today, the Navy disqualified five personnel, while the Marines suspended no one.

The Air Force said it had suspended two people after doing background checks for about 2,600 sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates.

Pentagon officials said part of the reason the Army found so many more people to suspend may have resulted from the service branch going beyond Hagel’s order from last spring, and reviewing the records of drill sergeants and other trainers as well.

Hagel’s spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said the defense secretary supported the Army’s initiative to cast a wider net than absolutely required in an effort to stamp out sexual assault.

“Nothing is more important to Secretary Hagel than the health and well-being of our troops and their families,” Kirby said. “He 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.”

Army’s top sex assault prosecutor suspended after assault allegation

WASHINGTON — The top Army prosecutor for sexual assault cases has been suspended after a lawyer who worked for him recently reported he’d groped her and tried to kiss her at a sexual-assault legal conference more than two years ago.

Two separate sources with knowledge of the situation told Stars and Stripes that the Army is investigating the allegations levied against Lt. Col. Joseph “Jay” Morse, who supervised the Army’s nearly two dozen special victim prosecutors — who are in charge of prosecuting sexual assault, domestic abuse and crimes against children.

Attempts to reach Morse via phone and email for comment have thus far been unsuccessful.

Morse was removed from his job when the allegations came to light, one source said. To date, no charges have been filed in the case.

The suspension comes at a time the military is dealing with rising reports of sexual assault.

Morse, chief of the Trial Counsel Assistance Program at Fort Belvoir, Va., was responsible for Army prosecutorial training and assistance worldwide. He also was lead prosecutor in the case against Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who pleaded guilty to the mass murder of 16 Afghan civilians in 2012.

Sources told Stars and Stripes that the Army lawyer alleged that Morse attempted to kiss and grope her against her will. The alleged assault reportedly took place in a hotel room at a 2011 sexual assault legal conference attended by special victims prosecutors in Alexandria, Va., before he was appointed as chief of the Trial Counsel Assistance Program.

The lawyer reported the incident in mid-February, and Morse was suspended shortly thereafter, according to one source.

An Army official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter confirmed an investigation was underway.

“We can confirm that this matter is currently under investigation and that the individual in question has been suspended from duties pending the outcome of the investigation,” the official said. “Given that this is still an open case, we are precluded from providing any additional information at this point.”

The suspension follows on the heels of a late February announcement by the Army it had suspended 588 troops and employees in “positions of trust” — including sexual assault response personnel — for suspected offenses including sexual crimes and alcohol abuse.

“This reads like an article from the Onion,” said Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, in an email. “Unfortunately there is absolutely nothing funny about it.

“If true, this case is yet another disheartening example of the hollow pledges of ‘zero tolerance’ we have heard for more than 20 years,” Parrish wrote. “When the military has those at top of the chain who are in charge of fighting sexual assault accused of sexual misconduct at a conference on sexual assault it should be clear to every level headed human being [that] the status quo must be changed.”

According to an Army biography, Morse was commissioned as an aviation officer in 1993 and became a judge advocate in 2001. Among his assignments, he has been a trial counsel, senior defense counsel and staff judge advocate. He received his law degree from the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law, and is a graduate of Army’s Air Assault, Airborne and Ranger schools.

Last year, the former head of the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, was acquitted in civilian court of assault and battery against a woman who said he had grabbed her buttocks.

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