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Military Sexual Assault Crisis Prompts Congress to Act

President Barack Obama met with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, right, and other Pentagon leaders at the White House Thursday to discuss sexual assault in the military. The U.S. military vowed May 15 to address a wave of sexual assault cases after a soldier who worked in a rape prevention program was accused of forcing a subordinate into prostitution. Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images.

Over the last several days, the phrase “sexual assaults in the military” could be found within the top stories of almost every news organization.

First came a Defense Department report estimating that the crimes have risen sharply, that most victims are unwilling to report them, and that commanders summarily dismiss cases that had apparent merit. Then in rapid succession came charges two military officers responsible for stopping sexual misconduct had themselves committed it.

On Thursday, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey — summoned along with other military leaders by President Barack Obama to the White House to talk about the problem — called sexual assault in the military a “crisis.”

Members of Congress have wrestled with the long-standing problem for years. Now, as a result of the hyper-attention to the issue this week, they were in legislative high gear.

What’s emerged is two sides to a central question: should military commanders be stripped of their sole authority to decide whether complaints of sexual assault go forward?

Republican Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio — a member of the Armed Services Committee — says he’s not yet ready to take that authority away from the military chain of command.

On Wednesday he told PBS NewsHour that responsibility for investigating alleged sexual assaults should however be taken away from lower-level commanders who have been known to not act on complaints for fear that acknowledging such a problem could hurt the commander’s chances of promotion.

“A lower-level chain of command decision can result in extreme bias and extreme pressure,” Turner said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office.

Turner favors legislation that would move the adjudication decision on sexual assault to higher-ranking military officers then hold them to account if the cases are not handled properly.

“As we elevate up the chain of command and institute an accountability for the person that has that responsibility, their performance, their review, their promotions, should be decided based on their handling of these cases, instead of the silence these cases had before,” Turner said.

“Making it a professional objective and a higher-level command, we think will make a difference.”

On the other side of the question is New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

She’s lost faith in the chain of command’s ability to handle effectively sexual assault cases.

“If you judged all our commanders of today based on the occurrence of sexual assault and rape in the military, they would all be receiving a failing grade,” Gillibrand said in an interview Thursday.

“Listen, this problem is nothing new. It’s been going on for decades. And the military has tried to fix this problem for decades, and they’re still failing. To go from 19,000 unwanted sexual advances, assaults and rapes the year before last to the 26,000 last year, its unacceptable.”

“What we have heard from the victims themselves is that they don’t report often because they believe they will be either retaliated against, marginalized, or blamed for the incident themselves. You don’t want a commander who may be biased, who may know the victim, who may know the perpetrator, who’s maybe being judged based on whether there’s been sexual assault in the ranks,” she said.

Under legislation Gillibrand unveiled Thursday, a separate prosecutorial body would be created in the military to handle sexual assault and other serious crimes.

“If you have an independent review by a trained prosecutor and professional who understands sexual assault, who has legal training … you have to take it out of the chain of command. Give it to trained military prosecutors to do the review, the investigation, and then decide. This way, I think, the huge gap between the number of incident rates and the reporting will narrow. We have to get to a place where it’s not just zero tolerance for this kind of behavior, we have to a place where its zero occurrence. And I don’t think that’s ever going to happen if victims are too afraid to report these crimes.”

Turner acknowledges an independent set of military prosecutors may be needed. But not yet.

“Ultimately, we may need to turn to that sort of a structure, if we’re not able to — within the military structure — increase the prosecution and prevention aspect,” he said.

“[The] military justice system is ingrained and connected to our whole military structure. And to carve something out … is probably a knife too strong to wield. At this point, I think we can address those issues, and then hold the Department of Defense accountable to what we actually see in the data and the numbers. Ultimately, if DoD cannot rise to this occasion, then we will have to go in and take it away from them.”

If the spotlight on sexual assault in the military remains nearly as intense as it was this week, lawmakers soon are likely to be voting on reform bills, not just talking about them.

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