The Pentagon’s Thursday announcement of new reforms to how it handles military sexual assault received a tepid response from advocates who called the new measures necessary but insisted that the half dozen new proposals still fall far short of what is needed to address the epidemic of sexual violence in the ranks.
“While we support efforts that attack the status quo, these changes are mostly small tweaks to a broken system,” said Taryn Meeks, executive director of Protect Our Defenders in response to the Defense Department’s plan.
Among Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s instructions to top military leaders were plans to create a special advocacy program for each branch of the military providing legal services to victims, elevate certain oversight capabilities to higher ranking officers, and standardize policies related to inappropriate relationships between superiors and subordinates across all branches.
Hagel also ordered military departments to allow individuals accused of sex crimes to transfer. The Pentagon already has a policy allowing victims of assault to apply for expedited transfers in the wake of crimes, but survivors have reported long delays and that transfers have been denied, forcing them to serve with their alleged attackers.
The Defense Department estimates that some 26,000 members of the military were victims of unwanted sexual contact in 2012, of which only 3,000 incidents were reported and only 302 were ever prosecuted. A rash of high-profile sexual assault and misconduct cases earlier this summer renewed debate over how to stop what top U.S. officials have called a “scourge” and a “plague.”
Despite fierce debate between Democratic Senators Claire McCaskill and Kirsten Gillibrand over taking sexual assault prosecutions out of the military chain of command, supporters of reform all indicated that Hagel’s announcement Thursday is only the beginning.
“The Pentagon taking action is a good thing and these are positive steps forward but it is not the leap forward required to solve the problem,” said Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York. She supports removing serious crimes, including sexual assault, from the chain of command and plans to introduce an amendment to this year’s defense authorization bill. Dozens of senators, as well as many survivor advocacy groups, support Gillibrand’s proposal.
A proposal from McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, that would keep prosecutions within the chain of command was included in the Senate’s defense authorization. McCaskill made it clear that, unlike some earlier attempts to address sexual assault in the military, action this time would come from outside the Pentagon as well. “Today’s announcement has little bearing on the fact that Congress will soon mandate a host of historic reforms, but it’s evidence that the Defense Department is now treating this problem with the seriousness we expect, and that survivors deserve,” she said Thursday.
After decades of inaction and mishandling, veterans like Anu Bhagwati, Executive Director of Service Women’s Action Network and a former Marine Corp captain, are not as convinced by Hagel and the Pentagon. “The solutions announced [Thursday] demonstrate that the U.S. Department of Defense is still only wading in the shallow end on these issues, unable to create the deeper, large-scale solutions our service members and veterans need,” she said.