No tolerance for military sex assaults

June 5, 2013 

They kept on their best military faces, but the commanders of America’s armed forces had to be uncomfortable Tuesday as they came under sometimes withering examination by United States senators at a meeting of the Armed Services Committee. This was a no-nonsense appearance, as members of Congress have become increasingly angry about the spread of sexual assaults in the military branches and inexcusable lapses in the prosecution of offenders.

Changes are coming, and despite the commanders’ objections, changes should come. Several senators have suggested removing jurisdiction over sexual assault charges from the commanders in the military justice process.

There have been claims that some commanders in the ranks have interfered in the process to the detriment of justice. Seven bills before the committee are likely to change things, perhaps to the dislike of protective commanders but maybe for the betterment of justice.

Several women senators, including North Carolina’s Sen. Kay Hagan, took on the military leaders with a directness they’ll not soon forget.

And the commanders must have been shook up when no less than Vietnam hero Sen. John McCain recounted a mother coming to him to ask if he could support her daughter’s wish to join the military.

“I could not,” McCain said. “I cannot overstate my disgust and disappointment over the continued reports of sexual misconduct in our military. We’ve been talking about the issue for years, and talk is insufficient.”

‘Like a cancer’

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York brought one issue to the fore, the fact that “not every single commander necessarily wants women in the military.” Gillibrand wants to deny commanders the authority to decide when criminal charges are filed, and remove the authority of senior officers to convene courts-martial. Basically, there is a sentiment that sexual assaults in the military should move to a more civilian-type process to ensure that nothing is covered up or ignored because of the sentiments of officers.

At least these chiefs of the military branches didn’t deny and obfuscate. They acknowledged problems. One called the assaults “like a cancer” in the military.

Indeed, the Pentagon recently estimated that as many as 26,000 members of the military, the vast majority of them women, may have been sexually assaulted last year, but only 3,374 were reported. That shows, of course, that there is a feeling in the ranks that sexual assaults are not taken seriously up the chain of command.

Matter of trust

“Sexual assault should not be tolerated or accepted as part of military culture,” said Hagan, who’s signed on to some of the proposals to strengthen protections.

Hagan has been focused on the issue for some time, not afraid to speak out and demand action. Given North Carolina’s prominence as home to several military bases, that’s appropriate. But the senator is among those who gave this issue attention and hasn’t let it fade.

And speaking of the chain of command, Tuesday’s hearing was a reminder, a necessary and encouraging one, that members of the Congress intend to assert their supervision of the military. America’s tradition of civilian control is important, and the issue of sexual assault is an example of why.

For all the attempts by military leaders to stem drastic congressional action, it’s clear that something has to happen, and soon. There must be ways for sexual assaults to be reported and prosecuted without the person making the complaint being threatened with career damage.

This is a serious problem that according to statistics from the Pentagon seems to be getting worse. Doing something should be viewed by the generals and admirals as a direct and urgent order. And it’s an order from those who have the final say over military budgets and priorities. That should help the sense of urgency.

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