Time for America's military to face its own problem of sexual assault

Time for America's military to face its own problem of sexual assault
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While the Harvey Weinstein scandal has focused the attention of the public on sexual assault in the workplace, it is important to note that one highly regarded American institution, the U.S. military, has been struggling with the issue for more than 25 years. Each time new scandals involving the services become public, the uniformed military leaders force some service members to retire early, promise to increase training and announce a zero tolerance policy. But what they and their supporters will not do is remove the cases from the chain of command, that is, place sexual assault accusations in the hands of military lawyers free of influence or impact by the commanders where sexual assault incidents are alleged to have occurred.

Many of our military leaders claim that removing jurisdiction over these cases from the chain of command will undermine military readiness and unit cohesion. However, there is no empirical evidence to back up this claim. Three of our closest allies, the United Kingdom, Israel and Canada, prosecute cases outside the chain of command. Since they have been doing this, there have been no adverse consequences to their military readiness or unit cohesion. Moreover, two of our other allies, France and Germany, even allow victims to take their cases to civilian courts with no adverse effects.

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The impact of leaving these cases in the chain of command for the U.S. military was made clear in a recent article in the Washington Post. It pointed out that in 2016, there were 6,172 sexual assaults in the military. However, because an estimated one in three victims actually reported being assaulted, the real number could be as high as 18,000. In fact, according to retired Marine, Kate Germano, one in three women in the military has been sexually assaulted while on active duty. According to Germano, the situation is now so bad that the Weinstein scandal pales in comparison to the current state of affairs for women in the military. Moreover, only 389 of the more than 6,000 reported cases, or six percent, proceeded to trial and produced public records.

By obtaining an internal 400-page law enforcement case file, the Washington Post demonstrates exactly how the uniformed military currently handles cases of blatant sexual assault. In September 2015, about two years after the uniformed military and their congressional supporters beat back attempts to take sexual assault cases out of the chain of command, a female victim at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Alabama reported that her boss, a married Air Force colonel, repeatedly said he would like to sleep with her, tracked her movements, sent her explicit recordings of himself, trapped her in his office, grabbed her arms, and forcibly tried to kiss her.

The Air Force’s own investigators confirmed much of her account and compiled extensive evidence that the colonel committed abusive sexual assault against the woman. Under military law, such a charge should have resulted in a court martial and could have sent the colonel to prison for up to seven years and required him to register as a sex offender. As retired Col. Don Christensen, a former chief prosecutor for the Air Force, who has lobbied to take cases like this out of the chain of command, told the Washington Post, “This kind of case cries out to be court martialed.”

However, in March 2016, Lt. Gen. John Thompson, the senior officer in the colonel’s chain of command, who was about 600 miles away at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, refused to charge the colonel with any crime and instead recommended he receive nonjudicial punishment, which in essence, is discipline for a minor offense, like showing up late for work. Thompson did this even though the victim pleaded with him to approve criminal charges.

The Maxwell-Gunter Case was not the only situation where there are allegations that those guilty of sexual harassment were not held to account. USA Today recently discovered that since 2013, there were at least 500 cases with allegations of serious sexual misconduct among generals, admirals and senior civilians that the Pentagon attempted to bury, rather than investigate and seek punishment. To compound the problem, the military services have seen a resurgence of cases in which troops responsible for preventing sexual assault have been accused of rape and other related crimes themselves.

Some four years ago, when the military sexual assault scandals first became public, my colleague Lindsay Rosenthal and I, and many members of Congress, including Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandAt debate, Warren and Buttigieg tap idealism of Obama, FDR Trump court pick sparks frustration for refusing to answer questions Klobuchar, Buttigieg find themselves accidentally flying to debate together MORE (D-N.Y.), argued that not removing these cases from the chain of command, would mean no justice would be brought to the victims. If this blatant case at Maxwell-Gunter did not result in a court martial, one has to wonder how many other serious cases like those documented by USA Today are also being swept under the rug. It is time to do what our allies have done or this problem will continue to get worse for the U.S. military.

Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information. He served as an assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Defense from 1981 to 1985.