Stating unequivocally that “enough is enough,” Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, along with a bipartisan group of legislators, unveiled a bill Thursday that would overhaul the way the military deals with cases of sexual assault. Gillibrand condemned the current system and urged her fellow lawmakers to “seize this opportunity and act now so we can move towards a true zero tolerance reality in the armed services.”
The bill would alter articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that allow officers who may have little to no training in law or sexual assault to make decisions about the validity of highly sensitive allegations. It would also remove all crimes that would carry a sentence of more than one year in prison–crimes equivalent to civilian felonies–from the military chain of command. Serious crimes specific to the military would still be prosecuted according to the existing UCMJ.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and other top military officials have staunchly opposed making such changes, claiming they would hurt cohesion and discipline. Hagel did propose revising one of the UCMJ articles addressed by Gillibrand’s bill. The Pentagon recommended last month that officers no longer be able to alter or dismiss sentences after they have been rendered, although there has been no further congressional action on the recommendations Hagel’s office submitted.
Gillibrand and others in attendance cited a need to change the process to encourage the reporting of sexual assault. California’s Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer pointed out that nearly 90% of all incidents of sexual assault in the military went unreported. Out of an estimated 26,000 incidents in 2012, only 3,374 were reported.
In the past two weeks, two service members with leadership roles in sexual harassment and sexual assault prevention have been accused of serious crimes against women, highlighting the long-standing crisis and creating momentum for change that did not exist before.
The bill is set to begin the markup process next week, and Gillibrand said that she wants policy changes to be included in the next National Defense Authorization Act.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a co-sponsor of this bill who is also sponsoring legislation that would remove convicted sex offenders from the military, asked in her remarks, “What does it say about us as a people, as a nation, as the foremost military in the world, when some of our servicemembers, both men and women, have more to fear from their fellow soldiers than from the enemy?”
The bills that have been introduced in recent months do not address all the problems faced by victims of military sexual assault. Many survivors who report their attacks face retaliation, discharge, and difficulty accessing treatment through the VA.
Brian Lewis, a former Navy Petty Officer, was accused of fabricating his rape, diagnosed with a personality disorder, and discharged from the military, leaving him ineligible for G.I. Bill benefits. “We are not unpatriotic for bringing this to light,” Lewis said. “The military betrayed us.”
President Obama will meet Thursday afternoon with Secretary Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey to discuss the ongoing sexual assault crisis.