Speaking Thursday on “CBS This Morning,” Gillibrand (D-NY) called the stories of alleged sexual misconduct “disgraceful and outrageous,” and said victims have been afraid to come forward, fearing retaliation.
“We have arguably 26,000 assaults a year, but only about 3,000 are even reported and only a handful go to trial and result in a conviction,” Gillibrand said. “So what we need to do is change the system, so victims know that they can receive justice.”
In the last two weeks, two service members have been accused of sexual misconduct. In both cases, the men had been in charge of preventing those type of crimes.
The allegations have triggered outrage from local commanders to Capitol Hill and the Oval Office. Yet there seem to be few clear solutions beyond improved training and possible adjustments in how the military prosecutes such crimes. Changing the culture of a male-dominated, change-resistant military that for years has tolerated sexism and sexist behavior is proving to be a challenging task.
“What we’ve heard from the victims is that they fear retaliation, they fear that they’ll be marginalized or that their careers will be over that they will be blamed themselves,” Gillibrand said.
Gillibrand, who serves as the chair of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, planned to introduce legislation that takes top commanders out of the process of deciding whether a sexual misconduct case goes to trial.
For sexual offenses with authorized sentences of more than one year in confinement, akin to felonies in the civilian judicial system, that decision would rest instead with officers at ranks as low as colonel who are seasoned trial counsels with prosecutorial experience.
“We need to create a culture in which they (victims) can actually report these crimes and have these crimes be investigated and prosecuted and we believe we need to take this out of the chain of command,” she said.
As new sexual assault allegations emerged this week, the Pentagon said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is working on a written directive to spell out steps aimed at resolving the escalating problem.
Hagel has also ordered the retraining, recertifying and rescreening of all sexual assault prevention and response personnel as well as military recruiters, who also have been accused in recent sexual misconduct cases.
But President Barack Obama, fuming at a news conference last week, warned that he wanted swift and sure action, not “just more speeches or awareness programs or training.” Sexual offenders need to be “prosecuted, stripped of their position, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period,” he said.
“The president has made very clear his expectations on this issue,” said Pentagon press secretary George Little.
Obama planned to meet Thursday afternoon with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the civilian and military leaders of each service, and the military’s senior enlisted advisers to discuss the issue, the Pentagon announced.
Little said that Hagel told Obama on Tuesday about an Army sergeant first class at Fort Hood, Texas, who faces allegations of sexual misconduct. The case involves the soldier’s activities with three women, including an allegation that he may have arranged for one of them to have sex for money, according to a defense official.
Just last week, an Air Force officer who headed a sexual assault prevention office was himself arrested on charges of groping a woman in a Northern Virginia parking lot.
Those allegations come on the heels of a Pentagon report last week that estimated that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, based on survey results, out of 1.4 million in the services.
It said fewer than 3,400 reported the incidents and nearly 800 of those simply sought help and declined to file formal complaints against their alleged attackers.
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