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Major Push to End Sexual Assault Epidemic in Military Turned Back in Senate

Defense authorization bill won’t include Sen. Kristen Gillibrand's measure to remove reporting of sexual assault from chain of command—despite having bipartisan support.
 
 
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Photo Credit: By DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Sean K. Harp, U.S. Army. (Released) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 
 
 
 

As the Senate Armed Services Committee meets Wednesday to take up its version of the Defense Authorization bill, senators will likely devote at least as much verbiage to discussion of sexual assault in the military ranks as they do to the finer points of the Pentagon budget that is the bill’s main focus. But missing from the committee’s final version of the bill will be the one measure that advocates for survivors of sexual assault and rape say is critical to ending the crisis that grips the military: removing the reporting and prosecution of sexual assault cases from the chain of command.

Despite its bipartisan support and 27 co-sponsors, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), the committee chairman, struck from the bill a measure offered by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that would have moved the adjudication of all serious crimes (such as murder, rape, and sexual assault) into the hands of independent prosecutors in order to create a safer environment and more impartial judicial process for those who have been the targets of assailants in the military ranks.

Levin made the decision Tuesday, replacing the provisions of Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act with a measure that simply requires that any command decision not to prosecute a sexual assault case be reviewed by a high-ranking officer. But as demonstrated in at least one recent case—the  overturning of the sexual assault conviction of Air Force Lt. Col. James Wilkerson by Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin—the top brass often exhibit the same deference to defendants as commanders lower in rank.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has condemned Levin’s decision. “They basically embrace the status quo here. It’s outrageous,” she  told the New York Times.

As Gillibrand and others noted in a June 4 day-long hearing on sexual assault in the military, victims often don’t come forward because of well-founded fears of reprisal by their commanders. Testimony by victims’ advocates laid out a picture of a landscape on which retaliation against those who report sexual assaults—including being drummed out of the service on the basis of mental-health diagnoses made by military medical personnel—seemed almost as common as the assaults themselves.

Citing a recent  Pentagon report that estimated some 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact experienced by members of the military at the hands of others in the ranks, Gillibrand addressed a panel of top military officials: “Of the victims who did report … 62 percent said they received retaliation.”

Of those estimated 26,000 incidents, only 3,300 were reported, and fewer than 200 went to trial.

Most U.S. allies, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, and Israel, have altered their command structure to reflect the kind of change that Gillibrand and co-sponsors of her bill seek in the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). But the Joint Chiefs of Staff don’t want it, and Levin is not disposed to make them do it, despite the fact that the Constitution places control of the military under the leadership of civilian elected officials.

Among the measures attached to the bill, which allocates the annual budget for the whole of the armed forces, will likely be several that aim to aid members of the military who survive rape and other sexual violence at the hands of their colleagues, measures that victims’ advocates applaud but that only deal with the aftermath of assault.

Proponents of Gillibrand’s measure contend that because it would encourage rape survivors and assault victims to come forward, and would likely result in a higher number of prosecutions, it could change the current military culture marked by rampant predation on lower-ranking members by their superiors.