Bills Address Military Sexual Assault Crisis

Female soldiers from 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division train on a firing range in 2012 Female soldiers from 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division train on a firing range in 2012 Mark Humphrey/AP file photo

Lawmakers are moving quickly to address the escalating problem of sexual assault within the military.

On Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators and representatives introduced the 2013 Military Justice Improvement Act. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who has been vocal about the issue and was a key driver of the legislation, said service members “find themselves in the fight of their lives” when they become the victims of sexual assault.

The legislation would change the Uniform Code of Military Justice by taking the decision-making authority to prosecute sexual assault cases entirely out of the chain of command.

“That’s how we will achieve accountability, justice and fairness,” Gillibrand said.

The bill would also give the offices of the service chiefs of staff convening authority -- that is, the power to create courts and to select judges and juries. It would still allow commanding officers the ability to order punishments for offenses that do not go to trial.

“Our legislation ensures that military sexual assault victims who come forward are guaranteed a safe, fair, and transparent process, free from fear of retaliation,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, said.

Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced legislation that would create new criteria for service members in sexual assault prevention positions.

The bills come after the recent arrests of service members working in sexual assault prevention offices within the Army and the Air Force on allegations of misconduct and abuse.

“Now is the time for our military leaders to reevaluate who is being put into these positions," McCaskill said in a statement. "Are folks filling these jobs with people who aren't succeeding elsewhere? Or are these jobs being given to our best leaders? These allegations call for a review and possible changes to personnel and the training they receive.”

Reps. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, and Kay Granger, R-Texas, introduced the 2013 Military Sexual Assault Act, which provides a Special Victims’ Counsel and adds other resources to help victims. It would require that the members of the counsel are qualified and competent, as determined by the judge advocate general, to work in this sensitive position.

“Recent events make it absolutely clear that the time for action to address the military sexual assault crisis is now,” Ryan said in a statement.

In the past, the military officials have resisted changes in command authorities. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a congressional panel last week that he wanted to keep the current authorities “within the command structure,” according to the Army Times.  However, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little recently said that  “all options” were now on the table, suggesting possible movement on the issue. Among other actions, Hagel has ordered reviews of military commanders convening authorities, and protections currently given to sexual assault victims.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told reporters on a military aircraft on Wednesday that the services were “losing the confidence of the women who serve that we can solve this problem.” He labeled the current situation as a crisis.

A recent study from the Pentagon indicated that the number of “unwanted sexual contact” incidents increased to 26,000 in fiscal 2012, up from an estimated 19,300 in fiscal 2010. Slightly more than 3,300 sexual assault reports were filed in fiscal 2012, and similar percentages in the years before. President Obama has said that perpetrators of sexual assault are “betraying the uniform” and is demanding action on the issue. 

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