Remove sex crimes from the military chain of command

May 8, 2013 

The following editorial appears on Bloomberg View:

Any doubts that the U.S. military has been unable to address its own problems with sexual assault should be dispelled by a just-released Department of Defense survey.

The number of such assaults reported by members of the military increased 6 percent in 2012, to 3,374. Still more disconcerting was an anonymous survey suggesting that as many as 26,000 service members were actually attacked last year; the last such poll in 2010 produced an estimate of 19,000. Many victims have too little faith in the military’s justice system to come forward.

Recent scandals in the Air Force have laid bare the pervasiveness of sexual abuse. An investigation of the Air Force’s Lackland training headquarters in Texas found evidence that 48 recruits had been sexually assaulted by 23 instructors. This week, the Air Force officer responsible for, of all things, sexual-assault prevention, was arrested and charged with sexual battery.

It also recently came to light that in the past year, two Air Force generals, against the recommendations of their legal advisers, overruled military jury findings and granted clemency to convicted sex offenders.

Twenty-two years have passed since the Tailhook scandal focused attention on the sexual abuse of military women. It has been 17 years since the Aberdeen scandal, in which 11 Army instructors were punished for assaulting female trainees – and 10 years since sexual assaults resulted in the firing of commanders at the Air Force Academy.

The military has had time enough to get a handle on sexual abuse.

So what should be done? Stripping commanders of their clemency powers, as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has suggested, would address injustices only at the very end of the process. The secretary’s promise to conduct a review of officer accountability is similarly insufficient; self-correction hasn’t worked and may not be realistic anyway.

Any solution has to be systemic. Sexual abuse complaints are now handled through the chain of command. Base commanders, who may be in charge of both the complainant and the accused, decide whether a case proceeds to a court-martial. This can produce conflicts of interest for a commander who might be loath to lose a good soldier. In 2012, there were twice as many reports of sexual abuse as there were investigations completed and three times as many investigations as courts-martial.

A bill in the House, sponsored by Democrat Jackie Speier of California, would address sexual assault in the military more realistically by creating an autonomous unit within the Department of Defense. This unit would handle accusations independent of the chain of command. Military investigators assigned to sex cases would report directly to the office, whose director would oversee all prosecutions. The office would also have the authority to reassign complainants and to separate them from their alleged assailants.

A longer-term solution lies in affecting cultural change in the military. The Pentagon’s decision in January to drop its ban on women serving in direct combat should allow greater equality and thus may reduce sexual abuse. Until then, an immediate remedy is required.

Washington Post News Service

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