Defend U.S. troops against sexual assault and harassment in the military – finally

You’re reading “Our View,” which is one of two perspectives in Today’s Debate.

For a counterpoint, read “Removing military commanders from sexual assault cases won’t yield meaningful solutions.”

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and each time expecting a different result, the decades-long practice of relying on the U.S. military to cure its epidemic of sexual assault has been stunningly crazy.

Finally – exhaustively – that may change.

A bill providing much-needed reform was introduced last week by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a champion of this issue for years, and Joni Ernst of Iowa, the GOP’s only female combat veteran in the Senate. Colleagues of both parties are moving to join the legislation in hopes of attracting 60 votes and making it filibuster-proof. It now has 56 co-sponsors.

The bill would, among other things, revise military law and remove commanders from their roles in handling sexual assault complaints, leaving the decision to prosecute or court-martial an offending soldier with a special prosecutor in a civilian-led office.

Reporting sexual abuse to bosses

This is a fundamental change that could help ensure that allegations of sexual assault and abuse are taken seriously, that the guilty are punished and that victims can find accountability. Civilians aren’t required to report sexual abuse to their bosses, and the same should be true for service members.

Right now, commanders make the call on whether a sexual harassment or assault case moves toward prosecution, and this can create a clear conflict of interest. The commander may know both parties and might dislike the accuser or favor the alleged offender – if, for example, that person is a decorated soldier. Or commanders could have their own hidden record of sexual misconduct. 

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and fellow lawmakers on April 29, 2021, introduce legislation to address sexual assaults in the military. (Photo: Michael Reynolds/epa-EFE/Shutterstock)

The militaries of such U.S. allies as Australia, Canada, Great Britain and Israel have long since removed sexual assault cases from the chain of command. But the Pentagon has resisted, arguing that commanders need to retain authority over all offenses to preserve their leadership roles. Instead of embracing change, they’ve paid lip service to zero tolerance of sexual abuse and kept generating awareness programs as Band-Aid fixes, all to no avail. 

Humiliating military scandals

Sadly, Congress has indulged the generals, despite the neon-flashing reality of consecutive scandals: 

►There was the Tailhook atrocity of 1991, when aviators assaulted women at a Las Vegas convention.

►Or the 1,500-page Pentagon report in 2013 that revealed pervasive sexual abuse in the ranks.

►Or humiliations in 2013 and 2014, when a sexual abuse prevention officer was reprimanded for committing sexual abuse and another was convicted of running a prostitution ring.

►There was the infamous Marines United abomination of 2017, where photos of partially clothed female Marines were posted online.

And in 2018, a troop survey revealed an astonishing 20,500 instances of unwanted sexual contact in one year, a 38% jump over 2016.

Say their names

Meanwhile, individual stories grew only more horrifying.

There was the case of Army Staff Sgt. Randall Hughes, accused of raping another soldier’s wife at a drunken party near Fort Bliss, Texas, in 2017. A commander declined to prosecute and Hughes went on to commit serial sexual assaults, including of his 14-year-old daughter. He was convicted in March and sentenced to 13 years in prison.

And there was Army Sgt. Elder Fernandes, 23, who was reportedly the victim of unwanted touching by a superior at Fort Hood, Texas, last year. Fernandes was transferred to another unit and when word of his allegation spread there, he was hazed and harassed by other soldiers. He went missing last August and was found hanging from a tree off base, an apparent suicide. 

But the case that could finally generate change in Congress’ attitude was the death of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen at Fort Hood. A woman who had dreamed since childhood of being a soldier, Guillen, 20, complained to friends of being sexually harassed by another soldier. She disappeared in April of last year, and her body was found a couple of months later. Guillen had been beaten to death with a hammer by someone who tried to dismember and burn her remains before burying them along a riverbank. A soldier suspected of the killing, and of being the person who had sexually harassed Guillen, killed himself as police were closing in.

To his credit, the military’s top officer conceded Monday that the kind of changes outlined in the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act introduced by Gillibrand and Ernst may be necessary. “We’ve been at it for years, and we haven’t effectively moved the needle,” said Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We have to. We must.”

In addition to the changes in military law, the proposed reform would increase leadership and investigative training in the areas of sexual assault and domestic abuse, and a report on expenditures needed to increase physical security on bases.

By no means is the bill a panacea. But at least it represents a fundamental change in military justice that could finally turn the tide on this epidemic of sexual assault. 

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