In my 33 years with the Montana National Guard, I saw the very best in America’s men and women. I worked with and learned from soldiers and airmen who had the courage to do what’s right no matter the consequences. They took responsibility and put service before self.
Sadly, in a few cases, I also dealt with the worst in some people. And that’s where our challenge lies for the future of our great military.
Sexual assault anywhere is intolerable. It’s a terrible tragedy. We must do everything we can to prevent it, to prosecute criminals to the fullest extent of the law, and to serve and treat survivors. In our military, we can do better. We must.
The U.S. Senate is debating several solutions to what is thankfully not a partisan issue. But it’s one that deserves our full attention. As retired adjutant general of the Montana National Guard, I believe we must fundamentally change how we deal with sexual assault in our military.
Currently in the Armed Forces, a military commander is ultimately responsible for the prosecution of these crimes. As we’ve seen in some cases, a commander — who may have no experience as a prosecutor — can overrule the results of a court-martial. And we’ve seen how that can take away the fundamental right to a fair trial and prevent justice.
In the Montana National Guard, if the unimaginable happens, prosecution of sexual assault occurs outside the purview of a military commander. Criminal acts committed in the Guard are reported to the appropriate civilian authorities, which then investigate and prosecute them. The Guard cooperates throughout the entire process, but has no right to interfere. No one in the Guard has the power to overrule the results of a fair trial in an American court.
That’s why I support legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to remove prosecutions from the purview of military commanders — much like the Montana National Guard does. This legislation has earned widespread support on both sides of the aisle.
I recently watched the Senate Armed Services Committee hold hearings on assaults in the armed forces. I’m deeply gratified that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are working together to make changes that simply must happen for the sake of justice and safety.
For generations, too many military leaders have believed that removing these responsibilities from commanders would somehow undermine their authority on other matters. I’m confident that is not the case.
Sexual assault is a despicable and tragic crime. We must do everything we can to ensure justice for the survivors. We must fight for the women and men who fight for us. And I look forward to being part of this critical discussion.
Walsh, a former adjutant general of the Montana National Guard, is a Democratic candidate for Senate.