Pentagon Addresses Sexual Assault, but Some in Congress Are Skeptical

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., speaks on the subject of Iran, during a keynote address at the James E. Smith Conference on World Affairs, at the University of Nebraska,Kearney, in Kearney, Neb., Thursday, Feb. 22, 2007. 
National Journal
Michael Catalin
Aug. 15, 2013, 2:43 p.m.

The Pentagon on Thursday in­tro­duced a set of pro­vi­sions de­signed to crack down on sexu­al as­saults in the mil­it­ary, but some law­makers said the ef­forts came up short.

The sev­en meas­ures — dis­cussed with some law­makers ahead of time, ac­cord­ing to aides — came in a state­ment from De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel on Thursday and in­clude cre­at­ing a pro­gram that will aid sexu­al-as­sault vic­tims dur­ing the ju­di­cial pro­cess and will dir­ect the Pentagon’s in­spect­or gen­er­al to re­view closed cases.

“All of these meas­ures will provide vic­tims ad­di­tion­al rights, pro­tec­tions, and leg­al sup­port, and help en­sure that sexu­al-as­sault-re­lated in­vest­ig­a­tions and ju­di­cial pro­ceed­ings are con­duc­ted thor­oughly and pro­fes­sion­ally,” Hagel said.

But some law­makers panned the an­nounce­ment, ar­guing that the Pentagon’s “new” meas­ures were ac­tu­ally already on the books.

“The most mem­or­able state­ment from the Pentagon today was from Ma­jor Gen­er­al Jes­sica Wright [re­tired], who said that these new policies are best prac­tices from policies already in ex­ist­ence across much of the armed ser­vices,” said Rep. Jack­ie Spei­er, D-Cal­if., ac­cord­ing to a state­ment. “These aren’t new policies.”

Sexu­al as­saults in the mil­it­ary have in­creas­ingly be­come a high-pro­file is­sue as the Pentagon winds down wars in Afgh­anistan and Ir­aq. In 2012, ac­cord­ing to a Pentagon re­port, an es­tim­ated 26,000 ser­vice mem­bers ex­per­i­enced un­wanted sexu­al con­tact, 7,000 more than in 2010. Pentagon of­fi­cials have pub­licly, and re­peatedly, com­mit­ted to erad­ic­at­ing the prob­lem.

The is­sue has grown in polit­ic­al sig­ni­fic­ance as well. A bi­par­tis­an group of law­makers in the Sen­ate, led by Sen. Kirsten Gil­librand, D-N.Y., in­clud­ing Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., have backed a meas­ure that would re­move the de­cision to pur­sue charges against as­sail­ants from the mil­it­ary chain of com­mand, in­stead pla­cing it in the hands of mil­it­ary pro­sec­utors.

The Pentagon’s an­nounce­ment, though, has done little to sat­is­fy those law­makers.

“As we have heard over and over again from the vic­tims, and the top mil­it­ary lead­er­ship them­selves, there is a lack of trust in the sys­tem that has a chilling ef­fect on re­port­ing,” Gil­librand said in a state­ment.

Gil­librand, whose mil­it­ary ju­di­cial re­view bill lost a vote dur­ing a Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act markup, plans to of­fer an amend­ment to the meas­ure when it hits the Sen­ate floor, aides say. But she faces op­pos­i­tion from mem­bers of her own party, in­clud­ing Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man Carl Lev­in, D-Mich.

In May, com­ments by Pres­id­ent Obama meant to con­demn sexu­al as­sault seem­ingly back­fired when the pres­id­ent called for per­pet­rat­ors to be “pro­sec­uted, stripped of their po­s­i­tions, court-mar­tialed, fired, dis­hon­or­ably dis­charged.” Some ar­gued that, as com­mand­er in chief, the com­ments amoun­ted to “un­law­ful com­mand in­flu­ence,” ac­cord­ing to The New York Times. Law­yers for those charged with as­saults began to ar­gue their cli­ents could not get a fair tri­al.

Thursday’s an­nounce­ment un­der­lines the Pentagon’s hard line against sexu­al as­saults and rep­res­ents an ef­fort to change the cul­ture in the mil­it­ary, which is a sig­ni­fic­ant bar­ri­er to halt­ing the as­saults, vet­er­ans or­gan­iz­a­tions and vic­tim ad­voc­ates say.

“We’re all work­ing to­ward the same mis­sion,” said Kate O’Gor­man, polit­ic­al dir­ect­or for Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan Vet­er­ans of Amer­ic­an. “[The Pentagon] def­in­itely has an open ear to­ward solu­tions, and some­times you have to be that watch dog that pushes the agency to do bet­ter.”

But the an­nounce­ment does little to sat­is­fy law­makers ad­voc­at­ing for fur­ther changes to help vic­tims who re­por­ted at­tacks, only to be dia­gnosed with a per­son­al­ity dis­order and re­moved from the mil­it­ary. A San Ant­o­nio Ex­press-News series high­lighted the phe­nomen­on in May, rais­ing ques­tions about what the pa­per sug­ges­ted was a double be­tray­al: Vic­tims are first as­saul­ted or raped and are then labeled with a men­tal ill­ness, dis­charged, and stripped of be­ne­fits.

“The de­part­ment’s new ini­ti­at­ive does noth­ing to cor­rect the re­cord and bring justice to sexu­al-as­sault vic­tims that were im­prop­erly dis­charged with per­son­al­ity dis­order after they re­por­ted be­ing raped,” said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn. “It is im­port­ant for Con­gress and the sec­ret­ary to en­sure these vet­er­ans re­ceive the fair due pro­cess they have earned and de­serve.”

Fig­ures don’t ex­ist to show how many mil­it­ary vic­tims of sexu­al as­sault have been sub­ject to such treat­ment, but the mil­it­ary dis­charged 31,000 ser­vice mem­bers be­cause of a per­son­al­ity dis­order from 2001 to 2010, ac­cord­ing to a Vi­et­nam Vet­er­ans As­so­ci­ation of Amer­ica study.

Walz offered an amend­ment to the Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act that would have au­thor­ized a board to re­view these cases, but the meas­ure did not be­come part of the House bill. Walz is hop­ing, an aide said, that a sim­il­ar bill in the Sen­ate sponsored by Sen. Jon Test­er, D-Mont., would be offered as an amend­ment, and a spokes­man for Test­er said the sen­at­or is plan­ning to of­fer his bill.

“The truth of the mat­ter is that the mil­it­ary are go­ing to be the ones who lead the charge,” O’Gor­man said. “It is go­ing to take con­sist­ent vi­gil­ance.”

COR­REC­TION: An earli­er ver­sion of this story in­cor­rectly char­ac­ter­ized Sen. Jon Test­er’s plan to of­fer an amend­ment to the Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act. Test­er does plan to of­fer his bill as an amend­ment.