It explodes into the news, then quiets, but is still there, even though we turn our attention to more immediate matters, like the election season.
The New York Daily News refers to it -- "it" being rape -- as "the armed forces' hidden epidemic." Lest you think this is an overstatement, there were 3,191 cases of sexual assaults, ranging from wrongful touching to rape, reported in the services in 2011. But because this is a crime that is seriously under-reported even in civilian life, and much more likely to be so in the military services, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta estimates that there were actually in excess of 19,000 cases.
If that doesn't make you want to vomit, then you probably aren't a parent, or haven't served in one of the services yourself, or maybe just don't have a touch of empathy.
The current scandal involves at least 38 female trainees at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, allegedly assaulted by their instructors. Fifteen instructors have been implicated.
But all the services share in this problem. It is massive. It is sickening. And the victims in a surprising number of cases are not just females. The puzzling question is, Why?
It has been pointed out that we are dealing with a culture that encourages under-reporting. We are dealing with a masculinist culture designed to produce warriors. This requires conditioning in the use of violence. By necessity, it involves tremendous power on the part of the leader and very limited power for the led. It is easy to see how this kind of structure can, if not strictly controlled, be warped into covering over sexual assaults to protect careers, to avoid embarrassment, and perhaps subconsciously to deny that the rot exists.
It has also been pointed out that the Army, for example, has lowered standards on occasion in order to meet the enlistment rate required to perform the extreme missions that are beating the force to pieces. I have seen suggestions that this lowering of standards has allowed in sexual predators.
It seems to me that these are excuses, not reasons. As is the explanation some have offered that, well, women are serving alongside men now, pretty thoroughly integrated in the services, so it's natural that this would happen. No, it isn't natural. Just because women are present doesn't mean rape is the next logical step to be taken. Sexual assaults are usually deemed to be more about power than about sex. The armed services are power institutions. We can't change that. We absolutely must change the abuse of power that has resulted in the rape culture and the tendency to sweep it under the rug.
Of all the reasons that have been offered for this sick situation, I haven't seen one that points to the fact that these rapists weren't born wearing a uniform. They come right out of the society at large. They are our children. We trained them first. I wonder what we are doing or failing to do in the upbringing of our children that leads them to believe it's okay to perform such distasteful assaults on the person of those less powerful.
This is a long-lasting problem. Women who have served in a combat zone and endured sexual assault, and there are a great many, suffer a higher rate of post traumatic stress disorder than do men who engaged in combat. The VA must treat them for years afterward. The cost is not insignificant. To the country and to the victim.
This whole situation is an embarrassment to otherwise proud and reputable armed forces.
It is no less an embarrassment to all of us.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."