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Sexual assault in the military has persisted with nauseating frequency, and this week brought new attention to the rampant problem. On Monday, the officer in charge of the Air Force’s Sexual Prevention and Response unit was charged with sexual battery for assaulting a woman in a parking lot. On Wednesday, the Pentagon put out this report: In 2012 alone, 26,000 members of the military were sexually assaulted, a 35 percent rise since 2011.
On Tuesday, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) ripped into military officials, asking Air Force Secretary Michael Donley why the chain of command was failing its soldiers. Next Wednesday, the lawmaker plans to introduce a set of reforms she’s been developing with Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), among others, to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“It is clear that the status quo regarding sexual assaults in the military is simply unacceptable,” Gillibrand said in a statement to the Voice. “We have to reform how the military handles sexual assault cases and take on the culture that perpetuates this kind of behavior.”
The bill would remove decision-making on sexual assault cases from the chain of command, explains Glen Caplin, Gillibrand’s communications director.
“You have an enormous gap between the number of sex assaults that are occurring and the number of sex assaults that are being reported,” Caplin said. According to the Department of Defense, 47 percent of servicemembers said they didn’t report sexual assaults and harassment for fear of retaliation.
Last month, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called on military and Defense Department leaders to get rid of something called “convening authority” power in major convictions–the ability of military commanders to overturn court-martial decisions, including those dealing with rape. In 2012, after a court-martial convicted Air Force Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkerson of sexual assault at Aviano Air Base in Italy, convening authority Lieutenant General Craig Franklin stepped in and waved off the conviction. Wilkerson, who had been originally sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the Air Force, went back into service.
Gillibrand’s bill would apply Hagel’s suggestions by amending the Uniform Military Code of Justice’s Article 60–the law would change so that convening authorities cannot set aside convictions or change guilty ones. The bill would also add independent prosecutors to decide whether a case goes to a court-martial in the first place, but reserve commanders’ convening authority for the cases that aren’t moved forward by these prosecutors.
“We would keep these cases within the military justice system, but we would create real reform that goes outside the chain of command,” Caplin explained.
If there’s someone who could shake up military protocol, it might as well be Gillibrand, who led the charge for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”