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At military sexual assault hearing, expect mostly men

U.S. President Barack Obama (L-R) is greeted by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel as he takes the stage for remarks at the Memorial Day observances at Arlington National...
U.S. President Barack Obama (L-R) is greeted by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel...

For decades, military leaders have insisted they had the tools to stop sexual assault within the ranks even as they lamented their inability to find a "silver bullet" solution. On Tuesday, after years of trainings, public awareness campaigns, and other administrative directives failed to decrease the rate of military sexual violence, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold its first full hearing in nearly 10 years, one that could lead to fundamental changes to the way the armed forces deal with a problem Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called a "scourge."

Expect to see mostly men.

Of the 20 officials testifying, only five will be women and, of those, only three are in positions of leadership within the armed forces.

Gen. Martin Dempsey and top representatives from all branches of the military will face more intense scrutiny from committee members than ever before thanks to unprecedented momentum to reduce the number of sexual assaults that occur each year. There are multiple bills in both the Senate and the House that would change the system.

In the most radical departure from current military policy, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand proposed a bill that would remove sexual assault prosecutions from the military chain of command entirely.

“I hope the military leaders seize this opportunity for real transformational change rather than defend the status quo,” Gillibrand said in a statement. The system as it exists now, she said, “is clear broken and has a chilling effect on victims coming forward.”

Hagel and other top military officials have staunchly opposed the legislation—co-sponsored by Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii—arguing it would break cohesion in the ranks. But a spate of recent cases of alleged assaults, some of them involving officers tasked with preventing and responding to sexual assault and harassment, have created an opening for legislators to hold the Pentagon accountable.

"Every time there is powerful first hand evidence of the current system failing, there is mounting momentum for substantial change," Blumenthal told msnbc. "There is a higher level of interest than ever before. This issue is no longer abstract or theoretical."

Other senators on the committee have also proposed changes, but two other bills, one introduced by Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill and one co-sponsored by New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte, would leave decision-making authority with military commanders. In addition to co-sponsoring Gillibrand's bill, Shaheen introduced a bill with and Nebraska Republican Deb Fisher that would change the way the military assigns officers to sexual assault prevention positions.

Since the Pentagon released its annual report on sexual assault in May, allegations of misconduct and assault have continued to surface at a steady pace. NBC News reported Friday that three students at the United States Naval Academy are under investigation for allegedly raping a female midshipman. One week earlier, President Obama said that the plague of sexual assault threatens “the trust and discipline that makes our military strong” in his commencement address at the Academy. Secretary Hagel also decried it as a “profound betrayal” at West Point’s graduation, just days after a staff member was accused of secretly filming female cadets.

Advocates for survivors are also scheduled to testify about the need to remove sexual assault prosecution from the chain of command.

“This reform will ultimately happen,” Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders told msnbc. The question is, “how long will it take and how much more damage to our troops, our military and our standing in the world our leaders are willing to accept.”