By Jeremy Herb
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey said Friday that he’s looking for “game changers” from Congress and the military to address the problem of sexual assault in the military.
“We’re looking at game changers really. And some of these congressional proposals could be game changers,” Dempsey said at a Pentagon press briefing.
But both Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declined to endorse any specific measures from Congress, and they would not weigh in when asked about one plan to remove sexual assault cases from the military’s chain of command.
“We are not taking any position on any bill,” Hagel said.
Congress is planning on moving quicker than that, however, as lawmakers have nearly a dozen different proposals that will be brought forward when the Armed Services committees mark up the Defense authorization bill in June.
The legislation from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) represents one of the biggest proposed changes, as it would remove the decision to prosecute sexual assault and other felony-level cases from commanders, putting the decision in military prosecutors’ hands.
While Hagel said he was open to all options when asked about Gillibrand’s bill Friday, he has previously expressed opposition to taking cases outside the chain of command.
Dempsey also stressed the commander’s importance on Friday.
“In our system, we give commanders life and death decisions, and I can’t imagine going forward to solve this without the commanders involved,” Dempsey said.
The Joint Chiefs chairman also said that military leaders want to make sure they know what the “second- and third-order affects” are before moving forward with proposals.
Hagel, Dempsey and the leaders of the services met with President Obama at the White House Thursday, as the president has called on the military to do a better job curbing the problem of sexual assault.
There has been wide outrage over a number of incidents and a recent Pentagon report that estimated there were 26,000 assaults in 2012, an increase of one-third from the 2010 report.
“They’re angry about it. And I heard directly from all of them that they’re ashamed by some of what’s happened,” Obama said of the military leaders after the Thursday meeting.
Obama said that he has instructed the military brass to “leave no stone unturned” as they look at the problem.
Hagel sent a directive on Friday to the Joint Chiefs and service secretaries asking them to develop “a concept for a sexual assault prevention and response stand-down.”
The memo, obtained by The Hill, asks the services to review the credentials of recruiters, sexual assault response coordinators [SARCs] and victim advocates, to provide refresher training and to implement plans for direct engagement between commanders and service members.
“The end state of this stand-down will be that leaders, recruiters, SARCs and every member of the Armed Forces clearly understand they are accountable for fostering a climate where sexist behaviors, sexual harassment and sexual assault are not tolerated, condoned or ignored,” Hagel wrote.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, who has been criticized for blaming the rise in sexual assaults in part on a “hook-up mentality” at a Senate hearing last month, told reporters Friday that he was “open” to removing the decision to prosecute sexual assault cases from the chain of command, according to Stars and Stripes.
Welsh apologized for his “hook-up mentality” comments Friday, saying he was not trying to blame victims for assaults, as some say his remarks implied.
“If I had this to do over again, I would take more time to answer the question and not try to compress it,” Welsh said, according to the Associated Press, adding that he meant that every airman had to be instructed in “this idea of respect, inclusion, diversity and value of every individual.”
Gillibrand’s proposal — as well as a House bill authored by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) — would constitute a structural change to a military judicial code that dates back centuries.
She has gained the support of about 15 senators, including three Republicans, but the heads of the Armed Services Committee have not taken a position.
Dempsey said Friday that he has received a letter from Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) asking for his input on the congressional proposals.
“I will communicate with them before I communicate with you,” Dempsey told reporters Friday.