Should sex abuse cases in the military be taken outside the chain of command, a move that most victims have called for and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is leading the charge for? Yes, sir!
In the past year and a half, in response to various scandals and reports, the armed services have instituted a number of reforms aimed at combating rampant sex abuse within the ranks, including legal counsel for victims and education programs for commanders. And now Congress is considering more changes, as it has become obvious that the reforms haven't worked. The number of reported cases increased from 3,192 in 2011 to 3,374 in 2012.
But that's only part of it. Based on an anonymous survey, the Pentagon estimates there were actually as many as 26,000 sexual assaults in 2012, compared to 19,000 in 2010. That means around 85 percent go unreported. The reason is that the victims (some men, but mostly women) fear they won't be believed if they come forward, or there will be no punishment for the perpetrator, or they themselves will be retaliated against.
A big part of the problem is that commanders call the shots. They're the ones who make the final decision on whether or not a case is prosecuted. They have the sole discretion to set aside or overturn a guilty verdict, as one Air Force general did in March for a lieutenant colonel under his command. And in the vast majority of cases, they are men -- older ones who came up in a system without women, a system with a macho culture where rank and personal relationships matter a lot.
So it didn't come as that big a surprise when, earlier this year, a male sex assault prevention officer was arrested for allegedly groping a woman in a parking lot (he was acquitted in a Virginia court last week). Or when a retired female who held a similar job at the Air National Guard base in Glenville claimed that sex abuse cases there were routinely ignored, that perpetrators not only went unpunished, but were promoted.
Faced with continuing stories and reports about sex assaults as well as Gillibrand 's pressure, the Senate is now considering additional reforms. They include stripping commanders of the authority to dismiss court-martial convictions for sex offenses; subjecting commanders' decisions not to prosecute in such cases to review by higher-ups; and making retaliation against a victim who reports a sex offense illegal.
This would be progress, but not enough to quickly change such an ingrained culture. The best hope is still Gillibrand 's bill to take the decision to prosecute out of the hands of commanders and give it to trained military prosecutors. With a vote on that highly controversial measure possibly coming this week, Gillibrand and her opponents are lobbying the 25-30 undecided senators hard for support. We wish her luck.