Apologies Instead of Action

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Army photo / Staff Sgt. Teddy Wade

The Joint Chiefs of Staff testify on sexual assault in the ranks on June 4.

One would think that when the Joint Chiefs of Staff and members of their staffs took their seats in the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on June 4, they would come armed with statements promising change and detailing actions being implemented.

But, instead of being like Lieutenant General David Morrison, Chief of Staff, Australian Defense Force, who inspirationally went bare knuckles on the issue, stating in a widely-seen video that “I will be ruthless in ridding the Army of people who cannot live up to its values,” our chiefs can’t even talk a good fight!

Instead, they delivered confessions of failure. Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said “We have become too complacent,” and Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno added that “We have failed in our efforts to date to fully protect our soldiers civilians, family members from sexual assault and sexual harassment within our ranks. There were apologies, and, most astonishingly, ignorance of what the militaries of our allies have done and are doing to address the issue. When questioned by Senator Roy Blount, R-Mo., how U.S. allies had dealt with sexual assault, since the problem has been known for years, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, responded that was “something I should have done.”

Unlike the militaries in Australia, Canada, Israel, Germany, the United Kingdom, and most of our NATO allies, which no longer allow unit commanders to determine the prosecution of sexual-assault cases, American military law requires that the officers directly in command of individuals charged with sexual assault offenses decide how the cases are handled. The result is that only 8% of military-sexual assault cases are prosecuted, and only 2% yield convictions. Even after admitting the failure of the present system — and after President Obama in his graduation address at U.S. Naval Academy and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in his commencement speech at U.S. Military Academy at West Point made calls for action on the issue — the Joint Chiefs unanimously supported to keep that system in place.

Despite acknowledging the problem, Senator Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the armed services committee, refused to support fellow panel member Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and her Military Justice Improvement Act, with its 27 bipartisan co-sponsors. That legislation seeks to reform the military justice system. Itand removes the court-martial conveying authority on major crimes from unit commanders, and places it in the hands of the military’s own professional legal corps. Instead, Levin replaced Gillibrand’s legislation with his own amendment: if unit commanders decide not to prosecute service members for alleged sex assaults, those cases would be required to undergo “an independent review by the next higher level of the chain of command.”

Since the 1991 Tailhook scandal, where Navy and Marine aviators were accused of sexually assaulting women at their annual convention in Las Vegas, the U.S. military has put in place numerous policies and programs to reduce assaults. Yet, two decades later, the problem persists. The 2012 Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military indicates that only 3,374 cases were reported. The Pentagon estimates that there were 26,000 incidents of what the Pentagon calls “unwanted sexual contact.”

So what happens next?

Sexual assaults, notoriously underreported crimes (in fairness, a problem in the civilian world as well) are likely to remain that way—underreported.

What is the good news?

The legislative framework is set up for implementation in 2016. Why 2016? Because a new panel commissioned to begin a year-long process of researching and collecting more data on sexual assault in the military starts it work next month. Its findings are due in 12 months, on July 1, 2014. Therefore, the earliest this legislation can be proposed again for inclusion in the annual defense authorization bill is 2015 — unless new legislation is proposed directly on the Senate floor.

I guess we need to tell the victims of sexual assault to “just suck it up” for another couple of years.

The shame of it is that the militaries of Australia, Great Britain, Israel and others are leading the fight to rid their ranks of those who as Australian Lieut. General Morrison said, “behave in a way that demeans or exploits their colleagues.”

The best our chiefs can do, in contrast, is to apologize.

Donna McAleer of Park City, Utah is a 1987 West Point graduate and former Army officer, with an MBA from the University of Virginia. She advocates empowering women and is the award-winning author of Porcelain on Steel: Women of West Point’s Long Gray Line (Fortis Publishing, 2010).