I would like to reiterate my strong support for Senator Gillibrand’s reforms to the Military Justice System. I am proud to be an original cosponsor of the Military Justice Improvement Act and I should add that it has been a pleasure working with Senator Gillibrand on this issue. Her passion and commitment to rooting out sexual assault in the military is inspiring. I should also add that I appreciate the work of the Armed Services Committee, which added a large number of common sense reforms to the underlying bill. In fact, some of them are so common sense that you have to wonder why the military hasn’t adopted them or asked for legislation to do so before now. For instance, the bill before us provides that people convicted of certain sexual assault offenses may not join the armed forces, requires the mandatory discharge from the armed forces of any member convicted of certain sexual assault offenses, and directs a comprehensive review of the adequacy of training pertaining to sexual assault prevention and response.
The bill also has a number of provisions to address concerns about commanding officers not handling sexual assault charges properly, but still keeps the judicial process in the chain of command. We feel that this is inappropriate. We’ve tried working within the current system. This isn’t a new issue. Military leaders have been making emphatic promises about tackling the problem of sexual assault for years and years, but the problem only seems to be getting worse. What’s more, the current system appears to be part of the problem.
According to a recent Defense Department report, 50 percent of female victims stated they did not report the crime because they believed that nothing would be done with their report. Seventy-four percent of females and 60 percent of males perceived one or more barriers to reporting sexual assault. Sixty-two percent of victims who reported a sexual assault indicated they perceived some form of professional, social, and/or administrative retaliation. This acts as a terrible deterrent to reporting sexual assault. If sexual assault cases are not reported, they cannot be prosecuted. If sexual assault isn’t prosecuted, it leads to predators remaining in the military and a perception that it is tolerated. By allowing this situation to continue, we are putting at risk the men and women who have volunteered to place their lives on the line. We are also seriously damaging military morale and readiness. Taking prosecutions out of the hands of commanders and giving them to professional prosecutors who are independent of the chain of command will help ensure impartial justice for the men and women of our armed forces.
I know some senators will be nervous about the fact that the military is lobbying against this legislation. We are being asked once again to wait and see if the latest attempts to reform the current system will do the trick. I would respond that the time for trying tweaks to the current system and waiting for another report or study has long since passed. We also hear that this measure will affect the ability of commanders to retain “good order and discipline.” I would like to be clear that we in no way take away the ability of commanders to punish troops under their command for military infractions. Commanders also can and should be held accountable for the climate under their command. But, the point here is the sexual assault is a law enforcement matter – not a military one. If anyone wants official assurances that we are on the right track, we can take confidence in the fact that an advisory committee appointed by the Secretary of Defense himself supports our reforms. On September 27, 2013, the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) voted overwhelmingly in support of each of the components of the Military Justice Improvement Act Amendment.
DACOWITS was created in 1951 by then Secretary of Defense, George C. Marshall. The Committee is composed of civilian and retired military women and men who are appointed by the Secretary of Defense to provide advice and recommendations on matters and policies relating to the recruitment and retention, treatment, employment, integration, and well-being of highly qualified professional women in the Armed Forces. Historically, DACOWITS' recommendations have been very instrumental in effecting changes to laws and policies pertaining to military women. The bottom line is, this isn’t an advocacy group or fly by night panel. It’s a longstanding advisory committee handpicked by the Secretary of Defense and it supports the substance of our amendment to a tee.
I know it’s easier to support incremental reform. That’s even prudent in many cases. However, when we are talking about something as serious and life altering as sexual assault, we cannot afford to wait any longer than we already have. Our men and women serving this country deserve bold action to solve this problem – not in a few years or a little bit at a time, but right now. I would urge my colleagues to be bold and join us in this effort. It’s the right thing to do.