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Bringing Justice to Victims of Sexual Assault in the Military

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I was outraged by the news earlier this week that the coordinator of the Army's program to prevent sexual assault at Fort Hood in Texas is under investigation for abusive sexual contact. This follows last week's revelation that the officer tasked with preventing sexual assault in the Air Force had been arrested for assaulting a woman in a parking lot. It is hard to believe this was the second such incident in just over a week. All of this comes as the Pentagon released its own study showing a dramatic increase in sexual assaults and unwanted sexual contact in the military from 19,000 in 2011 to 26,000 in 2012. Even more concerning: only 3,374 of those cases were reported, and less than 10% of those were brought to trial.

While I appreciate Secretary Hagel's taking positive steps to enact reform, we need more than just words or retraining. It's increasingly clear that the military justice system is not working for its victims and the chain of command is incapable of policing itself when it comes to a zero tolerance reality for these serious crimes. Enough is enough. It is time for Congress to move forward now with bold reform that puts victims first.

In March, as Chair of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, I held the first Senate hearing on sexual assault in the military in almost ten years. One of the issues I asked military officials about was the case of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson who, last year at the Aviano Air Force Base in Italy, was convicted by a five-person jury of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to a year in jail, forfeiture of all pay and dismissal from the Air Force. After his conviction, Wilkerson's commander, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, proceeded to dismiss the case entirely, and re-instated Wilkerson to the Air Force.

We have heard over and over again from the military brass about the need for commanders to have this type of authority to maintain good order and discipline in the ranks. When commanders without legal training overturn jury decisions, or never send the complaints to trial at all, and those responsible for preventing sexual assault are alleged to have committed these acts themselves, then how can you possibly say there is good order and discipline now?

I was encouraged when Secretary Hagel announced his support for removing the power to overturn an assault sentence from the convening officer within an assault victim's chain of command. That is a strong step forward, but it is clear that we must go even further. When you talk to victims of sexual assault in the military, you hear that it's crucial that the decision making authority of whether or not a case goes to trial in the first place, should be removed from the chain of command as well. With only 3,000 cases reported out of a total of 26,000 assaults last year, it's clear that within the current system, the victims of assault do not feel they will get treated fairly or that justice will be done if they come forward. This must change.

That's why yesterday I was proud to introduce the Military Justice Improvement Act of 2013 with Senator Boxer, Senator Collins, and a bipartisan group of our colleagues in both houses of Congress. This strong bipartisan bill would place the reporting and decision making for cases of sexual assault, and other serious crimes that are punishable by one year or more, outside of the victim's chain of command and in the hands of a trained military prosecutor. Only when there is real accountability in the military justice system will more survivors of these crimes have the confidence to report them, and only then will these survivors get the justice they deserve.

Our best and brightest join our armed forces for all the right reasons and the vast majority of our brave men and women serving in uniform do so honorably. But there is also no doubt that we have men and women in uniform who are committing unconscionable acts of violence. The scourge of sexual violence in the military should be intolerable to all Americans and it's time to bring it to an end once and for all. We must commit ourselves not just to a zero tolerance policy, but we need to get to a point of zero occurrence. We owe it to the men and women who bravely join the military. While they join knowing the risks involved in serving, sexual assault at the hands of one of their colleagues in uniform should not be one of them.