For an institution that combats threats to Americans around the world, the U.S. military does a poor job of protecting its own troops from threats of sexual assault. Thousands of armed services members don't come forward when they are attacked because an outmoded military justice system turns an accusing eye back on them. Responding to a high-profile case, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this month acted to remove commanders' authority to toss out some jury verdicts in court-martials. This is a good step, but more fundamental change is needed. Otherwise victims will continue to be denied justice, encouraging a silence that allows rapists to remain in uniform.
An estimated 19,000 service members are sexually assaulted annually, according to the Pentagon. Overall, one in three women in the military has been sexually assaulted, twice the civilian rate. But in 2011, only 3,191 attacks were reported, typical of the low rates of service member victims who report the crime. Only about 10 percent of those cases go to trial.
At a recent Senate hearing convened by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., victims described their often fruitless efforts to have their attacker held accountable. Women and men who formally complain about abuse wreck their careers, while perpetrators are too often transferred or promoted.
This long-standing problem requires a reworking of the military justice system, something entrenched military leaders continue to reject. Calls for reform are coming now only because an Air Force commander made an indefensible decision to dismiss the conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson. He had been found guilty in a court-martial of aggravated sexual assault when he accosted a woman who was staying in the guest room where he and his wife lived.
Hagel wants Congress to end the power of the senior commander in a court-martial proceeding to reverse convictions in serious cases such as sexual assaults. And Hagel is asking that commanders be directed to explain in writing any decision to reduce a sentence or reverse a conviction in minor cases.
Congress should pass Hagel's reforms, but that is not enough. It needs to adopt changes that other advanced nations have made. Both Canada and Britain overhauled their military justice systems to put courts-martial into the hands of administrators who are not within the chain of command. It is a red herring to claim, as top military officials do, that this will interfere with the power of senior commanders to enforce good order and discipline. The current system perpetrates a culture of impunity for sexual predators. Where is the good order and discipline in that?
Any military that tolerates sexual abuse with winks, wrist-slaps and ersatz punishment is hurting its readiness, cohesion and effectiveness. As the brave men and women in uniform protect the nation from outside enemies, Congress must protect them from the enemies within.