Lawmakers Disagree on How to Proceed with Military Sexual Assaults

It looked for a moment that the House and Senate outrage over the way the military has been (not) dealing with sexual assault cases would result in quick bipartisan action. The latest events suggest a mixed bag of results as lawmakers grapple with this high-profile problem.

Wednesday a key Senate panel voted to continue allowing commanders to oversee the prosecution of military sexual assaults. The vote accompanied a rare display of Democratic infighting over how to combat a rising problem in the ranks. The Senate Armed Services Committee voted 17-9 in favor of an amendment sponsored by its chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., rather than a competing one offered by Kirsten Gillibrand D-N.Y.

Gillibrand argued passionately with fellow members of the panel to support her proposal, which she said would help to increase the reporting of sex crimes by removing the chain of command from their prosecution. “The victim fears retaliation,” she said. “It’s the reporting we need to change.” Gillibrand and other supporters of her proposal were infuriated with the Senate panel vote, which they feel simply continues the status quo, broken and flawed as it is.

State courts already have authority over rape and sexual assault cases should a victim choose to go to civilian law enforcement, but such cases are rare because the military prefers to prosecute its own personnel. Military leaders have been roundly condemned for dismissing cases or overturning guilty verdicts in other cases under their command.

Senator McCain Minces No Words

If you missed it, Sen. John McCain expressed his frustration with the military by telling top U.S. military chiefs he could not advise women to join the service so long as the sexual-assault scourge in the military remains unresolved.

“I cannot overstate my disgust and disappointment over continued reports of sexual misconduct in our military,” said McCain, a former Navy pilot and POW. McCain bluntly chastised the military chiefs saying, “we’ve been talking about this issue for years, and talk is insufficient.”

Senator Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vermont, chimed in this week by telling Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that Congress could seek to replace commanders in power with state prosecutors to deal with the military sexual assault cases. “To do things as they’ve always been done is not acceptable,” Mr. Leahy said. Senator Leahy made his comments during a spending hearing that included Mr. Hagel and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

How Do You Feel?

So, change is on the way with the way the military addresses sexual assault cases. The trouble is, we just can’t be sure as yet what exactly to expect by way of change. The pressure for reform is great right now, with public outrage fueling the fire. Lawmakers go at it mano a mano but have yet to produce anythingthat resembles a unified decision. Meanwhile, here we wait.

It’s more than a bit insulting that on a subject as important as this, and for the sheer numbers of people in the military who have reported being victimized by unwanted sexual advances and criminal violation, we can’t get in place laws to protect the basic human right of protection. This is happening in our military.

What a travesty that we have so many in positions of responsibility who apparently lack an understanding of how personally devastating a sexual assault is on the human spirit and on the human soul. This isn’t sexual roulette—all fun and games for adults. This is about raw criminal behavior. People are forcing themselves upon other people, apparently with great frequency in every branch of the military. The culture there allows them to do this and get away with it. That’s wrong. No excuses. It’s high time our military leaders and our lawmakers address these cases with that in mind.

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