Sexual assault

When a recent report revealed that sexual assault in the U.S. military was not only rampant but increasing, those at the top – including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel – rightly and quickly responded by vowing to change the culture that allowed an estimated 26,000 sexual assaults to occur last year and frequently go unpunished. Lawmakers were equally if not more alarmed by the findings and set about to reinforce Hagel’s promises of reform. Now, some lawmakers, at the urging of some high-ranking military brass, are backpedaling from efforts at transforming the structure and ethos in the armed services. That is the wrong move in addressing an alarming problem.

At issue is a measure proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would have military prosecutors – who operate outside the chain of military command – handle sexual assault cases instead of personnel within the command structure. Gillibrand’s proposal has the support of 27 co-sponsors, including four Republicans, and is designed to protect those who seek justice in sexual-assault cases from reprisal from their superiors. It is a common-sense measure that would do much to break the power structure that almost certainly has contributed to the alarming numbers of sexual assaults in the military. Gillibrand has sound reasons and ample evidence for pushing her proposal.

“After speaking to victims, they have told us that the reason they do not report these crimes is because they fear retaliation – more than half say they fear nothing will be done,” Gillibrand told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month. “I agree with you, the chain of command is important for setting the climate. Absolutely, you set the climate. We’ve chosen to keep all crimes of mission – such as going AWOL – with you, but there is a difference with setting the tone, dealing with misdemeanor behavior and dealing with criminal behavior.”

But the military leaders to whom Gillibrand spoke are balking at the notion of outsiders handling these cases and instead have pushed for a provision allowing them to have final sign-off on whether a case is prosecuted. That proposal has been embraced by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who is replacing Gillibrand’s measure with his own. It is a patently bad move that will undermine the pressing need to address the problem’s root.

While the military’s interest in protecting its autonomy and command structure is understandable, the problems that are resulting from that structure are outpacing its ability to address them adequately. In this case, the military needs outside help to give victims a path for recourse that does not carry with it the potential for career-ending retaliation. Gillibrand was right to advocate for it, and should continue to push her agenda. While it might be a bit of an ego blow to the military and its leaders, the overall culture will benefit greatly from a shift to one in which all of its members can trust one another and their leaders to protect them.

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