Steve Chapman
The people in charge of our military services have been presented with a possible change in how they operate, and they don't like it. I have the feeling I've heard this song before.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is sponsoring a bill to address the endemic problem of sexual assault in the ranks. It would revoke the authority of commanders to dispose these and other criminal allegations as they see fit. Instead, such cases would be handed over to professional military prosecutors.

Commanders would no longer be allowed to bar prosecutions. Nor could they overturn convictions or sentences. Impartial judicial processes would make the determinations. Crimes that are unique to the military, like desertion, and the equivalent of misdemeanors would not be affected.

Why is the change needed? Sexual assault is a problem the military has in abundance. The Defense Department says about one of every three women in the services has been the victim of this crime -- about twice the rate in the civilian population. Men are also violated.

An estimated 26,000 sexual assaults took place last year, the Pentagon says, but only 3,374 were reported. There were 302 court-martial trials and 238 convictions -- less than 1 percent of all the attacks.

One reason rapes and other sex crimes go unreported is that victims see no point in speaking up. A Pentagon survey found that half of those who kept quiet thought that nothing would be done or that they would suffer some punishment.

Last year, Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, said to Marines at Parris Island, "Why wouldn't female Marines come forward? Because they don't trust us." He complained that in many cases, "We've got an officer that has done something absolutely disgraceful and heinous ... and we elect to retain him."

In fact, one of every three of those convicted is allowed to remain in uniform. In May, the guy heading up the Air Force's sexual assault prevention office was arrested for grabbing a woman in a parking lot.

But Amos and the other service chiefs think Gillibrand's solution is worse than the problem. Appearing before her subcommittee in March, a parade of military lawyers rejected the idea.

Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Vaughn Ary said commanders need the authority over these cases "to hold everyone in their unit accountable to preserve that good order and discipline to accomplish their missions." Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard Harding agreed that preserving the power of commanders is "incredibly important" for "creating a responsive, disciplined force."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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