Senators push for support of military sexual assault bill

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's bill would take sexual assault prosecution out of the military chain of command.
By Christophe Haubursin -- Medill News Service  |  Updated Feb. 6, 2014 at 5:01 PM
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WASHINGTON -- Pushing for support on her bill to move prosecution of military sexual assaults out of the chain of command, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand spoke Thursday alongside veterans who were sexually assaulted while on active duty.

The Senate is expected to take up the Gillibrand bill next week.

“We need a system of military justice that is worthy of their excellence, that matches the distinction that they bring to the battlefield,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., part of a bipartisan group of senators joining Gillibrand.

The Military Justice Improvement Act, which would transfer prosecution duties of reported cases of sexual assault in the military to an independent prosecutor, has the backing of 53 senators. But ending a filibuster, which is expected on the Senate floor, would require 60 votes.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has led the charge against the bill due to concerns that it could diminish the authority of military commanders, causing anarchy in ranks. Those potential problems are outweighed by a “moral imperative” to take action, Blumenthal said.

“We shouldn’t have to get to 60,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. “Justice should never be filibustered.”

Further, the British, Australian and Israeli militaries have taken similar judicial measures without negative consequences to unity or authority, said Vietnam Veterans of America’s Thomas Berger. Only 3 percent of officials in the military have the capability to prosecute sexual offenders, leading supporters of the bill to argue that any challenge to authority would be narrow in focus.

“Trust in our system has been irrevocably broken due to the apparent bias and conflict of interest posed by a closed system where the boss holds all the cards,” said Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

In 2012 an estimated 26,000 cases of sexual assault occurred in the military, a 37 percent increase from 2011, according to Department of Defense. Half of female victims stated that they did not report the crime because they believed their superiors -- who made up approximately a quarter of the offenders themselves -- would take no action.

Gillibrand’s remarks come a week after a congressionally mandated Pentagon panel concluded in a preliminary ruling that commanders should retain oversight over all sexual assault cases within their chains of command. A majority of the panel, appointed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, agreed that removing officers’ authority would not reduce the number of assaults or increase the amount of reporting.

Still, Gillibrand said, momentum for the bill is “growing every day.”

Several veterans who were allegedly sexually abused while on active duty spoke at the Capitol Hill briefing, including retired U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Stacey Thompson.

Not long after being stationed in Japan, Thompson said, her sergeant laced her drinks with drugs and raped her -- and after reporting it, she encountered retaliation that eventually got her discharged without benefits.

“The reality is that we’re left to rely on a broken system which has produced a fear of reporting for fear of retaliation,” she said.

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