#NatSec #DefensePolicy #ForeignAffairs #VeteransIssues #CurrentEvents #CommonSense- A Millennial Perspective
A week ago Senator Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, stripped a much-needed provision from the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act. The Military Justice Improvement Act proposed by Senator Gillibrand (R-NY) would remove the authority to try sexual assault cases from commanders and give it to experienced military prosecutors. This change is aimed at abating military sexual assault while creating a system where victims feel empowered to pursue justice.
However, Senator Gillibrand’s purposed amendment was not well received by the military. In early June, the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously told the Senate committee that they were adamantly opposed to removing prosecution of sexual assault cases from commanders. Army Gen. Demsey asserted that the removal of commanders from the process would send a message that commanders could not be trusted and ultimately undermine good order and discipline. The service chiefs instead recommended a system of checks and balances to hold commanders accountable.
The stance of the service chief’s comes up against several advocacy groups and a number of lawmakers who believe that victims have lost faith and trust in the military justice system. Senator Gillibrand is one of the few lawmakers to offer a reform that could potentially afford victims the security needed to report assaults. Many military victims do not feel comfortable reporting sexual assault cases because they fear their voices will be suppressed, that their assailant will go unpunished, and that they may face punitive repercussions.
The fear of reporting is evident through numbers and echoed through stories. Of the 26,000 estimated reports of unwanted sexual contact only 3,374 were formally reported to the Department of Defense. In addition, countless stories have emerged that prove that these fears are well founded and reasonable.
Former Marine Corps officer Elle Helmer was raped by a fellow officer at the prestigious Marine Corps Barrack and investigated after reporting her assault. She was prosecuted and eventually forced to leave the Marines. Her assailant went free and continues to serve today. Lisa Wilken was an airman in the Air Force and was told her rape was not “violent enough” to warrant serious charges against her assailant. Each story is a blight on the record of our Armed Services and should produce motivation for real change.
The calls for change and zero tolerance have been unwavering, but the support for real reform is still in question. For the supporters of Senator Gillibrand’s reform the committee’s actions are an upset. Thankfully the committee has adopted other revisions and has acknowledged that doing nothing is not an option in efforts to address MST.
The proposal that was voted to replace Senator Gillibrand’s measure comes from SASC Chairmen Senator Levin. It would require the oversight of senior military officials on overturned sexual assault cases, but it would keep prosecution in the chain of command. This new revision has been referred to as modest. While having legislative changes in progress is still forward movement; the issue of MST does not need modest reform. Military sexual assault is not an issue that needs incremental change; it’s an epidemic. Not only has the military not effectively extinguished this issue in the past 20 years, they have allowed it to fester.
Senator Gillibrand’s proposal is expected to have another hearing when the National Defense bill is debated on the Senate floor this fall. She has affirmed her commitment to her legislation, and veterans’ organizations like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and SWAN have vowed to stand with her. However, it is clear this change will face an uphill battle even as co-sponsorship for her bill continues to grow.
Regardless of the outcome of Senator Gillibrand’s legislation it is clear that the process of ending MST and reforming how the military prosecutes sexual crimes will be a lengthy one. I am confidant that the outrage over this issue will not subside and that more victims will come forward with their stories. However, MST reform will need vigilant support to achieve the necessary disruptive change. Left unchanged this issue will continue to weaken our nation’s military and national security and thousands of uniformed victims will pay the price.