By DONNA CASSATA AND RICHARD LARDNER, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — Determined to stop sexual assault in the military, Congress is spelling out for the services how far lawmakers are willing to go in changing the decades-old military justice system.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, and officers heading each branch of the military were to testify Tuesday on Capitol Hill, but it will be members of the Senate who will provide clues as to whether Congress embraces a far-reaching approach to limit the authority that commanders have to discipline the forces they lead.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is a proponent of ambitious legislation that would remove commanders from the process of deciding whether serious crimes, including sexual misconduct cases, go to trial. That judgment would rest with seasoned trial counsels who have prosecutorial experience and hold the rank of colonel or above.

The military has serious reservations about Gillibrand's plan, concerned that stripping commanders of some authority would make it difficult for them to maintain good order and discipline. Not so, say some lawmakers, who argue that the military's piecemeal approach clearly hasn't been the answer.

The Pentagon estimated in a recent report that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, up from an estimated 19,000 assaults in 2012, based on an anonymous survey of military personnel. While the number of sexual assaults that members of the military actually reported rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012, thousands of victims were still unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing the crimes, the report said.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., a co-sponsor of the Gillibrand bill and chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, called the legislation "bold" and "out of the box." She dismissed concerns that it goes too far in overhauling the military justice system, saying it's time to try a new approach to solving a problem that has persisted for years.

"I think 26,000 sexual assaults is going too far," Mikulski said. "And now there is even a criminal investigation of the football team at the Naval Academy, where we are training the next best."
A steady drumbeat of high-profile cases combined with the most recent statistics from the Pentagon have spurred Congress to move aggressively on legislation to deal with sexual assault in the military.

Last week, the Pentagon said the U.S. Naval Academy is investigating allegations that three football team members sexually assaulted a female midshipman at an off-campus house more than a year ago. A lawyer for the woman says she was "ostracized" on campus after she reported it.

In recent weeks, a soldier at the U.S. Military Academy was charged with secretly photographing women, including in a bathroom. The Air Force officer who led the service's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response unit was arrested on charges of groping a woman. And the manager of the Army's sexual assault response program at Fort Campbell, Ky., was relieved of his post after his arrest in a domestic dispute with his ex-wife.

Crucial will be the views of senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee such as Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and several of the female members such as Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Deb Fischer, R-Neb.

Levin declined Monday to say which of the proposals he supports. But he said there were appropriate questions to be asked about the impact on the military of curtailing the authority of commanders to discipline troops in their units.

Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, top Republican on the committee, said he was wary of proposals to restrict the authority of commanders to discipline their troops.

"To take the commander out of the process will invite failure," Inhofe said in a speech on the Senate floor Monday. "These commanders have to make decisions to send our brave troops into battle. How ludicrous is it that we would say to our commanders, `You've got to make a decision to send one of our kids into battle where they may end up losing their life, but you can't participate in the justice system of the troops.' It doesn't make any sense at all."

Gilibrand's legislation has 18 co-sponsors, including four Republicans.

In the House, Reps. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, and Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., have crafted legislation that would establish dismissal or dishonorable discharge as the mandatory minimum sentence under military law for service members found guilty of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy or an attempt to commit those offenses. Commanders also would be barred from reducing or commuting the minimum sentence except in situations in which the accused substantially aided the government in the investigation or prosecution of another assailant.

Their bill, however, stops short of taking those cases outside the military chain of command.

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  • 'Full Battle Rattle'

    Rebekah Havrilla, out on patrol in Afghanistan. The former Army sergeant and Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialist enlisted in 2004, seeking out job training, education, "some patriotic element" after 9/11 and a way out of South Carolina. "I went in with the idea of making a career out of it," she says. "I thought, I can't be Special Forces, I can't do Rangers because I don't have a penis -- closest thing I can get to actually doing that type of job is EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal]."

  • Shot Hole

    Havrilla crouches in the remnants of a "demolition shot" she and her team did of a "bunch of captured enemy munitions" outside of Forward Operating Base Gardez, in Afghanistan. "It's a very male dominated, hypermasculine environment, so you've got to be the tomboy, kind of, 'let's play cowboys and indians. And soldiers,'" she says. But to some, this also meant persistent sexual harassment and even assault.

  • Rebekah Havrilla

    Havrilla says intense nightmares kept her from sleep, night after night, after she got back from Afghanistan -- until recently, when she moved to New York. Though Havrilla says that at first she suffered from the kind of hyper-vigilance described by fellow combat veterans in urban settings, she loves the city -- namely because it is so different than where she grew up, in a conservative Christian family in rural South Carolina. She is getting her Masters and working for the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN).

  • Tia Christopher

    An early photo of Tia Christopher, who joined the Navy at age 18 in 2000 and was out just under a year later, honorably discharged with a "personality disorder."

  • Women Veterans

    Tia Christopher and her friend Aston Tedford at a women veterans retreat in Arizona several years ago. Christopher now works as an advocate for veterans, in particular victims of MSA, and has written guidance on the subject.

  • Jungle

    Tia Christopher in a favorite photo.

  • 'I'm Beautiful Despite The Flames'

    Tia Christopher sent this photo of her recently completed tattoo Friday, Sept. 28. Written in Arabic, she says "her motto" -- which covers scars from her assault -- more literally translates: "Despite the flames that devoured my flesh, I am still beautiful."

  • Tia Christopher

  • Balloons

    Claire Russo in a childhood photo.

  • Claire & Coconut

    Claire Russo pictured at 10 years old, in 1989 with "Coconut." Russo grew up near Washington, D.C., and worked on the Hill. "I was sort of -- well no, a really privileged middle-class kid," she says. "I was just fascinated with the debate, and the decisions the government was making … And I remember a very strong desire to serve."

  • Claire Russo Salutes Her Cousin

    Claire Russo in 2004 at Quantico, right after being commissioned, saluting her cousin Tom Winkle, a Navy lieutenant and pilot. Russo lived with Winkle in San Diego, and was with him the night of her assault, at the Marine Corps Ball. It was Winkle that reported Russo's assault; she did not want to report, being afraid for her career.

  • Basic School

    Claire Russo (right) with her roommate at The Basic School in Quantico, Va., after finishing a field exercise. Russo says that one of the 30 females in the class of 180 was raped in the barracks while she was at The Basic School.

  • Fallujah Courtyard

    Claire Russo in a courtyard in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2006, when she served as the targeting officer for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. She deployed two weeks after testifying at the discharge hearing of the serviceman who raped her, Douglas Alan Dowson -- he was already in prison.

  • 'Citizen Of Courage'

    Claire Russo (front) salutes the flag during the national anthem, before she was given the "Citizen of Courage" award from the San Diego District Attorney's office in 2006. Behind her is San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and First Marine Expeditionary Force (IMEF) Commanding General John Sattler, who Russo says is the "only commander to ever apologize to me for what I experienced."

  • Russo And San Diego DAs

    Deputy District Attorney Gretchen Means, Claire Russo and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, after Russo received the "Citizens of Courage" award from the San Diego District Attorney's office at Camp Pendleton in 2006.

  • Down The Aisle

    Claire Russo at her wedding to Josh Russo. Lt. Josh Russo was stationed at Camp Pendleton, some 40 miles north, at the time of Russo's assault in 2004. He remains in the military.

  • Claire And Josh Russo

    Claire and Josh Russo on their wedding day, with friends from the Marines.

  • Russo And Her Motorcycle

    "Me on my Russian Minsk 120 cc dirt bike, in Laos. This was one day on an 8 month trip/honeymoon Josh and I took. We rode motorcylces through SE Asia, Australia and went to Africa," Russo describes in a recent email.

  • 'Marawara'

    Claire Russo in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, on a mission with the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Army Paratroopers. "I spoke with the district governor that day about how we could help to get a woman working for the Ministry of Womens Affairs working in his district," Russo writes.

  • Claire, Josh And Genevieve Russo In Paris

    Claire Russo and her husband, Josh Russo, and their baby Genevieve, here four weeks old, in Paris. Josh serves in the U.S. Army.

  • St. Genevieve

    "My 4 week old daughter Genevieve and I in front of a painting of Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, who saved the city from the Huns," Russo writes.

  • Marti Ribeiro In Front Of Village

    Marti Ribeiro served with the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines over eight years as a combat correspondent.

  • Interviewing

    As a combat correspondent, Marti Ribeiro accompanied medical convoys to remote areas without local doctors. Such clinics were set up in specific locations, so the locals needed significant advance warning of their arrival. When one such convoy came under attack, Ribeiro returned fire, earning her a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/14/women-at-war-unseen_n_1498291.html#slide=964342">Combat Action Badge</a>, though as a female, she officially should not have been in a position to take fire.

  • 'Afghan Girls On Rooftop'

    A photograph of Afghan girls, taken by Marti Ribeiro during her deployment.

  • Ribeiro In 2006

    Marti Ribeiro and an Afghan boy in 2006.

  • 'Soaked To The Bone And Miserable'

    Marti Ribeiro titles this photo -- taken in Afghanistan in 2006 -- as "soaked to the bone and miserable."

  • Marti Ribeiro And Her Daughter Bela

    Marti Ribeiro and her daughter, Bela, in San Antonio, Texas.