WASHINGTON — Just minutes before his first news conference as defense secretary on Friday, Lloyd J. Austin III found himself watching an emotional video that laid out in stark terms the military’s stumbling response to sexual harassment and assault in the ranks.
A visibly distraught female Marine, seated in a car, described how her superiors were handling her case. In the video, which lit up TikTok and Twitter on Thursday and Friday, and was widely disseminated among women’s veterans groups, the Marine said she had just found out that a commanding general had decided that the person she identified as having harassed her would remain in the Corps.
Wiping away tears, the Marine said her treatment by her superiors was why women in the military died by suicide.
Few specifics of the case have emerged, but the Marine Corps hurried to assemble an official response. “We are aware of the video of the Marine in distress,” the Corps said in a statement on Twitter on Friday.
But while the statement insisted that the Marine Corps took “all allegations of misconduct seriously,” and that commanders had taken actions to ensure the Marine was safe, it did not go into detail about the commanding general’s alleged decision to keep an accused perpetrator on the job.
Another statement, from Capt. Angelica A. Sposato with the Corps’ 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force in Camp Lejeune, N.C., said that the video “specifically refers to an allegation of misconduct regarding the wrongful appropriation and distribution of personal information.” The “current administrative separation process for the accused perpetrator mentioned in the video is ongoing,” Captain Sposato said.
Mr. Austin, for his part, said he found the video “deeply disturbing,” adding that he had asked his staff for more information.
In 2019, the Defense Department found, there were 7,825 sexual assault reports involving service members as victims, a 3 percent increase over 2018. From 2018 to 2019, the conviction rate for cases was unchanged.
Soon after Mr. Austin took the helm at the Pentagon last month, he ordered a review of how the Defense Department has been handling sexual assault cases. But that issue has been a matter of congressional debate for over a decade.
Advocates for victims of sexual assault in the military say the Pentagon needs to change the way such cases are handled — by taking control over them out of the hands of commanders who often know both the victims and the perpetrators and assigning them to military prosecutors with no connection to the accused. But such an overhaul would need approval by Congress.
In the video, the female Marine’s distress cuts straight to the heart of the argument those in support of changing the system have been making, that military commanders often allow their relationships with the accused to affect their decision-making.