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Sexual assault epidemic exposes shortfalls in military proposals

Thirteen months after then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta initiated a slew of changes to military rules designed to combat sexual assault in the ranks, a str
Credit: Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Credit: Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Thirteen months after then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta initiated a slew of changes to military rules designed to combat sexual assault in the ranks, a string of high-profile cases show that a culture of sexual violence still infects all branches of the armed forces.

The Army announced Tuesday night that it is investigating a sergeant first class stationed at Fort Hood. The service member is assigned to the sexual assault response and prevention office and is accused for sexual assault and other charges, including allegedly forcing a subordinate into prostitution. The allegations were revealed barely a week after an Air Force officer in charge of that branch's sexual assault prevention program was arrested for sexual battery. They also come on the heels of reports of abuse by military recruiters and light sentences for officers convicted of multiple counts of sexual assault at Lackland Air Force Base.

The Pentagon released a statement late Tuesday which said Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel “is directing all the services to re-train, re-credential, and re-screen all sexual assault prevention and response personnel and military recruiters.” Secretary Hagel has previously opposed attempts to change the way sexual assault cases are handled.

Survivors await congressional action

Members of both the House and Senate have introduced legislation aimed at curbing the military's sexual assault epidemic in the past year, although the some 26,000 service members who were victims of sexual violence in 2012 have had to wait for relief as Congress engaged in debt ceiling brinksmanship and slashing social programs.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., introduced legislation with Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., that would improve victim support services, although the bill does not remove sexual assault investigations from the military chain of command, a function of the military justice system that has been cited as a major impediment to prosecuting the few sexual assault cases that get reported.

While the Pentagon pledged in 2012 that it would make a number of changes to the way sexual assault allegations would be investigated, allegations are still dealt with within the military chain of command. Military officers have broad discretion in criminal cases; they can decline to pursue investigations, issue administrative punishments, and when courts martial are convened, the convening authority has the ability to overturn court martial convictions. An Air Force lieutenant general did just that in March when Lt. Col. James Wilkerson was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and was sentenced to a year in jail and dismissal from the military. Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin overruled the sentence and reinstated Wilkerson.

New York Democratic Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand has repeatedly called for an end to this policy and will introduce a bill Thursday that would remove major criminal cases from the military chain of command. Rep. Jackie Speier has introduced a similar bill in the House, as well as one that would reform the Uniform Code of Military Justice to remove the ability of a convening authority to alter sentences after they have been issued. In a statement, Congresswoman Speier said, "Congress has been an enabler of sexual assault by not demanding that these cases be taken out of the chain of command.  We owe it to every young man and woman in this country who serves to guarantee that they will not fall victim to sexual predators in the service."

“Disgraceful culture of abuse”

Advocates for victims of military sexual assault also support changing the way cases are handled and are skeptical that broad retraining will have any effect. Hagel "is not going to find the answers to these problems from within the ranks," Anu Bhagwati, executive director of Service Women's Action Network told msnbc. "The solution is not going to come from top military brass."

Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, also pointed to a need for large scale reform. "The problems are so long standing and pervasive that, at a minimum, it constitutes gross negligence on the part of the leadership and actually reflects, albeit informal, countenancing of a culture of violent abuse," she said in a statement.

Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, decried the “disgraceful culture of abuse” and vowed to grill the Army when representatives appear at a hearing next week, and a Defense Department spokesman confirmed that it had submitted its own proposed changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice to Congress.

The Pentagon said that the Fort Hood case will be investigated by the Army Criminal Investigative Command, or CID. One former agent who was raped during her CID training has described the attitude towards sexual assault victims as doubtful and hostile.