The Time Is Now for Military Justice for Assault Victims

Very soon, the U.S. Senate will hold an historic vote to end the epidemic of sexual assault in the military.

The carefully crafted Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) S.1752, introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), would remove the power to decide whether to try sexual assault cases from the military chain of command and put it into the hands of an independent military prosecutor. This is essential because we know that many sexual assault survivors do not report out of a concern that they will not be taken seriously or, worse, suffer retaliation. Many assault survivors are pushed out of service, sometimes being branded has having a personality disorder. Perpetrators remain in the military to repeat offenses.

As Senator Gillibrand says, “Nowhere in America would we allow a boss to decide if an employee has been sexually assaulted, except in the U.S. military.”

Or, as Sarah Plummer, who was victimized by sexual assault in the US Marines said,

Having someone within your direct chain of command handling the case, it just doesn’t make sense. It’s like your brother raping you and having your dad decide the case.

According to a Defense Department report:

  • An estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact and sexual assaults occurred in 2012, a 37% increase from 2011.
  • 25% of women and 27% of men who received unwanted sexual contact indicated the offender was someone in their military chain of command.
  • 50% of female victims stated they did not report the crime because they believed that nothing would be done with their report.

And another report released by the Defense Department this year showed that more than 1 in 5 female servicemembers reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact while serving in the military!

The problem of sexual assault in the military is not new, neither are the pledges of “zero tolerance” from commanders, which date all the way back to then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney in 1992. Many of our allies have moved reporting outside of the chain of command, such as Britain, Canada, Israel, Germany, Norway and Australia.

Senator Gillibrand’s bill is backed by a bipartisan coalition of 54 Senators including nine Republicans, numerous retired military officials, newspaper editorial boards and advocacy organizations including the National Organization for Women (NOW).

Army Chief of Staff, General Raymond Odierno said,

Our profession is built on the bedrock of trust – the trust that must inherently exist among Soldiers, and between Soldiers and their leaders to accomplish their mission in the chaos of war. Recent incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment demonstrate that we have violated that trust.

Senator Gillibrand has done a spectacular job building support, gathering facts, presenting evidence and answering critics. You can see all this and more on her website, here.

And while you’re at your computer, it’s urgent that you take a few minutes and tell your Senators to support Senator Gillibrand’s bill. It could come to a vote any day after the Senate returns from the President’s Day break. Six more votes are needed to overcome yet another Republican filibuster!

The Senate will also consider a bill that was introduced by Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) that would prevent commanders from being able to overturn jury convictions among other measures. It would not remove prosecutions from the chain of command, as Senator Gillibrand’s bill does, but it contains other important reforms. Senator Gillibrand has said that she supports both plans.

I have enormous respect for the work Senator Gillibrand has done on this legislation. She’s done everything right and has succeeded in building a coalition that includes Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz, Al Franken and Rand Paul. When was the last time you saw that happen? Will we ever see it again?

Let me say it again — time is of the essence. Send your senators that email right now — and then come back here and leave a comment telling us the reasons why you did.

Originally Published on Terry O’Neill’s Huffington Post blog on 02/17/2014

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