The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday:
Last year a military jury convicted Air Force Lt. Col. James Wilkerson of aggravated sexual assault against a civilian woman who worked at his air base in Aviano, Italy. He was sentenced to spend a year in confinement and be expelled from the military. But then his commander decided to toss out the verdict and keep Wilkerson.
The trial was irrelevant. A convicted rapist was back in the good graces of the U.S. Air Force. And the victim? "I was assaulted. I reported it. I endured the public humiliation, and the end result is that it was all for nothing," she said in a statement after the decision.
Her experience is not nearly as unusual as it ought to be. The Defense Department estimates that 26,000 sexual assaults are committed each year by service personnel, against women and men. One in every three female members of the military has been sexually assaulted, it reports. But the vast majority don't report the attacks.
Why not? In many instances, those who have filed complaints have gotten no action from their commanders; in some cases, they have been punished themselves. Sometimes, the person to whom they are required to report the crime is a friend of the attacker, or even the attacker himself. According to a Pentagon survey, half of those who didn't report thought nothing would be done if they did.
Air Force Sgt. Jennifer Smith told The New York Times she never reported any of the assaults she suffered in her 17 years in uniform because "it's a career ender to come forward."
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is pushing a bill that would take decisions about most serious crimes, including these sexual abuse cases, out of the hands of commanders and place them with professional military prosecutors.
Forty-four senators are co-sponsoring or endorsing the Military Justice Improvement Act, including Republicans Mark Kirk of Illinois, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Illinois' other senator, Democrat Dick Durbin, has not decided.
The military opposes the change, arguing it would undermine discipline and cohesion. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has argued that "victims need to know that their commander holds offenders accountable, not some unknown third-party prosecutor."
But commanders may be swayed by friendship, or they may let a soldier's military talents outweigh the interests of victims. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey has acknowledged, "You might argue that we have become a little too forgiving because, if a perpetrator shows up at a court-martial with a rack of ribbons and has four deployments and a Purple Heart, there is certainly the risk that we might be a little too forgiving of that particular crime."
Under the Senate bill, commanders would retain the right to decide nonjudicial disciplinary action in cases that are not approved for prosecution. They would retain jurisdiction over serious offenses that are unique to the military, such as being absent without leave.
Many countries, including Canada, Britain, Germany and Israel, have already adopted the approach proposed by Gillibrand.
"If this is so detrimental to good order and discipline, why do we trust our allies to be on the battlefield next to us?" asked Greg Jacobs, a former Marine who is now policy director of the Service Women's Action Network.
After seeing a documentary exposing the abuses of the status quo, Leon Panetta, then secretary of defense, transferred the decision about prosecutions from unit commanders to officers higher up the chain of command. His successor, Chuck Hagel, has asked Congress to change the rule allowing top commanders to overturn verdicts, as happened in the Wilkerson case.
It's time for Congress to make a priority of vanquishing the threat of sexual assault.
Arizona Daily Star