In the week leading into International Women’s Day, women in the military had little to celebrate as the Senate shot down yet another bill that would have changed the way sexual assault cases in the military are dealt with.
“To remove the commander from these responsibilities will, in my view, weaken his or her effectiveness. And the test of that effectiveness is not in the courtroom; it is on the battlefield. The consequences of such weakness could be significant to the forces of the United States,” said Senator Harry Reed in the debate Thursday.
Reed was referring to provisions in a piece of legislation that would have taken prosecutory powers out of the hands of commanders in cases of sexual assault and given them to prosecutors.
Congress has introduced a number of bills during the 113th congressional session, none of which has made it to the president’s desk to become law; this even as the number of reported sexual assaults have increased from 3,374 in 2012 to an estimated 5,400 in 2013, according to a preliminary report from the Pentagon.
This same report shows that of the 5,400 reports made to military commanders only 880 led to charges being filed.
Still as many as 50 percent of sexual assaults in the military go unreported.
The majority of victims face adverse social and professional stigmatization and are often labeled as liars or viewed as problems within their units.
“Sixty-two percent of victims who reported a sexual assault indicated they perceived some form of professional, social, and/or administrative retaliation,” said U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley on an amendment to the Military Justice Improvement Act. “This acts as a terrible deterrent to reporting sexual assault.”
The Department of Defense has recently instituted new policies aimed at responding to and preventing sexual assault. One of the top focuses, according to Secretary of Defense Hagel is command accountability.
Hagel also included strengthening victim legal support, pretrial investigative hearings by a Judge Advocate General officer and regular evaluations of closed sexual assault cases.
Hagel directed that those accused of sexual assault be transferred or reassigned, “in order to eliminate continued contact while respecting the rights of both victims and the accused.”
He also ordered the standardization of recruiter and trainer prohibitions against inappropriate behavior between recruits and trainees and changes to the sentencing procedures in court martials to include victim input.
Past initiatives have included safe rooms, anonymous call and text lines and peer groups for survivors.
The White House has called these efforts “only a step along a path toward eliminating this crime from our military ranks.”
The president has called for these efforts to continue and to strengthen for as long as is necessary.
Some members of Congress still question whether these changes go far enough, and whether leaving such an issue as sexual misconduct in the hands of commanders who have long ignored the issue and marginalized the victims goes far enough.
By Cory Clark
Senator Chuck Grassley
U.S. Department of Defense
U.S. Department of Defense