Military commanders must take the lead in battle against sexual assault

Military commanders must take the lead in battle against sexual assault
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The #MeToo movement has done tremendous good by highlighting the issue of sexual assault and empowering a generation of women and men to come forward knowing their voices will be heard. However, the brave revelation by Senator Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyBolton emerges as flashpoint in GOP debate on Iran Senate Republicans running away from Alabama abortion law McSally to introduce military sexual assault reform bill MORE of Arizona that she was raped while serving in the United States Air Force is a somber reminder that, when it comes to sexual assault in the military, there remains a lot of work to do.

Sexual assault is something that the United States Armed Forces have struggled with for decades, even before recent changes allowing women to serve in combat roles. When I was deployed with the United States Army during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the critical components of our intelligence, transportation, and supply operations consisted of women soldiers. Unfortunately, at the same time, we also dealt with a spate of sexual assaults while in theater. During peacetime, these crimes are already extremely challenging to prevent, investigate, and prosecute. During wartime, with soldiers living in close quarters under punishing physical and mental conditions, it becomes incredibly more difficult.

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As with civilian justice systems, the Uniform Code of Military Justice contains strict laws punishing rape and other violent crimes. However, unlike the civilian world in which prosecutors decide which cases to bring, how to charge them, and whether to negotiate plea deals, these decisions under the code are driven by military commanders advised by attorneys with the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Initiating criminal charges begins with company commanders who are often junior military officers only a few years out of a service academy or university.

There are members of Congress who have proposed removing the power of military commanders to make charging decisions for sexual assault cases and delegating it to military prosecutors. The rationale is that, by placing the power to charge sex offenses into the discretion of attorneys outside the chain of command, they would be less conflicted and more focused on pursuing justice. I respectfully disagree with this approach.

As a military prosecutor, I never found a commander at any level to be the obstacle to bringing court martial charges, whether it be for sex crimes or anything else. The problem is a cultural one where commanders too often look the other way and allow toxic environments to fester. Placing the responsibility to charge sexual assault cases on outside prosecutors will only make commanders more likely to treat this as not their problem.

This approach also somewhat misses the point about the reality of military life. When you work for a company or civilian agency, you typically leave your coworkers at the end of the day and go home. In the military, you live, work, socialize, and deploy with the members of your unit. Your chain of command, beginning with your squad leader, platoon sergeant, and your company commander, all have a tremendous impact on your life.

They lead by example, are in the best position to look for warning signs, and set the tone for what type of behavior will be tolerated. It is for these reasons that commanders must be more, not less, involved in preventing and punishing sex crimes They also must be held strictly accountable if sexual assaults happen on their watch and are not properly addressed.

Military victims of sexual assault are often loathe to come forward due to the fear of ruining their career. Military circles are small ones, and even winning a battle by successfully bringing charges can mean losing the war if by doing so you are labeled as weak or a victim. It is another reason so many service members choose to suffer in silence. Commanders must know that retaliation against victims of any kind will not be tolerated.

The United States military is the greatest fighting force in the world. It provides so many with the honor of serving their country, and can be a model for integration, as we have seen with women in combat roles and with gay and lesbian service members who can now openly serve with pride. But none of this matters if we cannot put an end to sexual assault.

I have an incredible wife who served an Army tour in Iraq. I also have five daughters who I hope will consider uniformed service. We owe it to all of our service members to address this issue. That begins with providing enlisted leaders and commanders the training and tools that they need to address this issue, and holding them accountable if they fail to use them.

Joseph Moreno is a former federal prosecutor with the Justice Department. He has served on active duty as a United States Army military prosecutor in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. He is now a partner with Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @JosephMoreno.