Editorial: Fighting enemies within the ranks

Published May 16, 2013

When the very people entrusted with changing the culture surrounding sexual assaults in the U.S. military end up accused of such crimes, promises are no longer enough. The military's antiquated system for holding to account sexual predators, which relies on a chain of command, is not effective and continues to allow troops to be victimized with no consequence for many violent offenders. Congress and the president need to overcome the resistance from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and top military brass to bringing an independent prosecutor into the process. Only then will perpetrators be treated like the violent criminals they are.

Two recent cases have put a face on the continued tolerance that exists among the military for sexual abuse. On Tuesday, a Fort Hood, Texas, Army sergeant with duties to prevent sexual assaults was accused of sexual misconduct with subordinates. That comes on the heels of sexual battery allegations against an officer in charge of the Air Force's sexual assault prevention programs. The broader picture also looks worse. During the last fiscal year, the Defense Department estimates that 26,000 men and women in the military were victims of sexual assault, up from about 19,000 the year before.

President Barack Obama met Thursday with Pentagon leaders to review legislative options and has made it clear he wants action. That meeting follows others between presidential aides and more than a dozen members of Congress, mostly women from the House and Senate armed services committees. Obama declared last week that those who engage in a sex crime need to be "prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period."

The push has been a long time coming but escalated after the 2012 documentary, The Invisible War, highlighted cases of soldiers raped by fellow troops or a commander. The victims' careers were negatively impacted while their attackers largely skirted accountability. The film's conclusions are reinforced by the Pentagon's own numbers that say there were tens of thousands of sexual assaults last year but only 3,374 reported incidents. Victims don't come forward out of fear of retribution or because they think the military is unlikely to prosecute under its current system where senior commanders decide whether to go forward with charges, pick the jury and then may set aside any conviction. In some high-profile cases, commanders have set aside guilty verdicts without explanation.

A number of good legislative proposals to reform military justice have been floated, but the most essential one is from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who introduced legislation Thursday to give military prosecutors, not commanders, the power to bring charges for serious crimes. In addition, senior commanders would be stripped of their power to set aside a guilty verdict. Britain and Canada have both taken courts-martial out of the chain of command.

With female soldiers taking on more combat roles, Congress has an obligation to protect them from enemies within the ranks. This is a problem the military has demonstrated time and time again that it can't fix itself.