Beall: Ending assault

BY MIKE BEALL | JUNE 18, 2013 5:00 AM

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Joining the military is a dangerous endeavor. The risk of injury and death in combat, especially in the last decade with two wars, is more than enough to make some individuals think twice about joining the military. Men and women sign up knowing these risks and believing them to be the cost in serving their country.

But combat injuries are not the only risks involved in joining the military. Women in the military are more likely to be sexually assaulted or raped by fellow soldiers than injured in combat. There are an estimated 26,000 sexual assaults in the military every year.

After a recent sexual-assault hearing, a mother asked Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whether he could give his full support to her daughter joining the military. He said no.

One of the military’s biggest supporters believes that it is too dangerous for women to join the armed forces. He didn’t say that he is against women joining the military but that he couldn’t willingly support individuals joining when he knows they could very likely become victims of rape. Until this problem is solved, McCain’s position is a respectable one.

But the change needed to combat these problems is unlikely to come in the present military structure. Just this year, two officers in charge of sexual-assault response offices were themselves charged with sexual assault. The chain of command talks about the issue in hearings and to the press but the almost entirely male command has done little to show that the leaders fully understand the issue or care. They seem more interested in protecting the chain of command and their prestige than preventing and prosecuting sexual assault.

Taking sexual-assault prevention, investigation, and prosecution out of the chain of command is the best way to curb sexual assault in the military. Currently, victims are forced to report to their commanders, and these commanders investigate at their own discretion. Commanders decide which cases to try in military court. Besides the victims’ commanders being almost always biased and will tend to do whatever best protects their command, victims are often afraid to report their superiors.

Many sexual assaults are unreported because of fear of retaliation both from commanders and fellow troops. By taking the chain of command out of sexual-assault cases and giving their power to military prosecutors, victims will fear less and prosecution will be more effective.

Such a plan was proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., but that was stripped from a defense bill a week ago in the Senate’s Armed Forces Committee.

The measure was taken out in favor of second bill written by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. His bill keeps prosecution under the power of commanders but requires a second officer to review decisions by commanders who decline to prosecute a sexual-assault case. Because this keeps cases under the purview of commanders, it does not solve any problems.

Gillibrand is likely to bring her proposal up again in the fall in what has been a strange battle in the Armed Forces Committee. She has the support of prominent conservatives such a Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, but not all of the women on the committee support her proposal. This is an extraordinarily important piece of legislation in the battle against sexual assault in the military, which will hopefully gain more momentum as this issue is brought to the attention of the public.

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