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Military sexual assaults: reforms not dead yet

Efforts to address the epidemic of sexual assaults in the military got a boost this week from unexpected quarters — the tea party wing of the Republican Party. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas said they support legislation offered by New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand that would take prosecution of such cases outside the military's chain of command.

That may be a controversial idea — limiting a commander's involvement in an investigation and prosecution of a soldier — but it's certainly not unprecedented among the world's elite fighting units. A similar strategy successfully decreased the number of sexual assaults taking place in the British, German and Israeli armed services.

Yet the idea has received strong opposition from the Pentagon and from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who last month rejected Senator Gillibrand's proposal. Opponents seem to believe that mere internal reforms, including stiffening the penalties for such behavior or offering greater whistle-blower protections, are an adequate response.

We think they're wrong and would point to the scale of the problem, as well as the military's promised reforms of years past. It's clear that something more robust than sensitivity training or a rewrite of a training manual is required to reverse a worsening crisis.

And a crisis is the best way to describe it. According to a survey released earlier this year, the number of assaults taking place in the U.S. military has risen sharply, from about 19,000 in 2010 to about 26,000 last year. Yet, according to the Department of Defense, only 3,374 sexual assaults were reported to authorities in 2012.

What's shocking is not simply the volume of crime but the lack of reporting by the victims, most of whom are women. It's obvious that many are fearful of the consequences of speaking up — and that's likely especially true if the assailant is someone of higher rank who is in position to retaliate. That's why it's essential that civilian authorities play a greater role.

The Senate bill should not be viewed as an attack on the active-duty military but an effort to save it from the criminal behavior that is not representative of the majority of service members. Sexual assaults are costing the U.S. armed services an estimated $3.6 billion per year, according to the RAND Corporation, which bases the number on the cost of medical and mental health services and other factors.

That someone like Senator Cruz — the darling of the Club for Growth, the Tea Party Express and former senator Jim DeMint — would endorse a bill that also has strong backing from Barbara Boxer, one of the Senate's most liberal Democrats, demonstrates that it surely isn't a partisan issue. Opponents include Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who has said he wants to change the military's culture but not its command structure.

Yet how can the Pentagon perpetuate the status quo when it's already been proven so ineffective? Recently, the department's inspector general reviewed 501 closed sexual assault cases since 2010 and found that 89 percent were not investigated sufficiently. In some cases, key evidence was not collected, interviews were not complete and the cases lacked a thorough crime scene investigation, according to the IG report released earlier this week. That should not inspire confidence in Congress or the Pentagon.

Such a record cries out for more professional standards — something that will be more likely achieved if such investigations are in the hands of the military's lawyers and not commanding officers who, in some cases, have overturned convictions.

Senator Gillibrand's bill remains a long shot. She has the backing of 33 senators so far but will need 51 to bring the measure to the floor, where it could be amended into the defense authorization bill scheduled to reach the full Senate as early as next week. The Pentagon is reported to be lobbying heavily for that not to happen.

Ultimately, this may come down to the Senate's new guard versus the old guard who are not inclined to challenge the military brass. On this common-sense issue, the nation's security interests require that we first keep our soldiers and sailors safe from sexual assault. That's unlikely to happen without the kind of shake-up mandated by the Gillibrand bill.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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