By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawmakers introduced fresh legislation on Thursday seeking to address the problem of sexual assault in the military and summoned the nation's top commanders to testify about the crisis, which has become an embarrassment to the armed forces.
The White House and Congress have demanded changes since seeing a damning report of a steep rise in the number of assaults on members of the military and a spate of high-profile sex-related incidents.
Most recently, a military official said on Wednesday that an Army sergeant was accused of videotaping female cadets in the showers at the Military Academy at West Point. The revelation came just hours after military leaders told a Senate panel they were making prevention of sexual harassment and sexual assault a top priority.
"This is a crime. It is a violent and vicious crime and the military needs to treat it as such," said Representative Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican and co-chairman of the House Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, a co-sponsor of the new bill.
The measure introduced by Democratic and Republican lawmakers in both the Senate and House of Representatives would mandate, at minimum, a dishonorable discharge for anyone found guilty of sexual assault or attempted assault. It would make it impossible for a commander to change a guilty conviction.
MILITARY CHIEFS TO TESTIFY
With several bills making their way through Congress, the Senate Armed Services Committee announced that it would hold a rare full-committee hearing on the legislation on June 4, with witnesses including General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the heads of all four service branches.
Most of the panel's hearings on legislation involve only subcommittees, not the full membership. Another exception was the consideration of legislation - now law - that allowed homosexuals to serve openly in the military.
The Pentagon reported that complaints of unwanted sexual conduct shot up by more than a third to 26,000 in 2012. The steep rise in cases comes just as the military moves ahead with plans to integrate women into front-line combat roles.
The bill introduced on Thursday is not as sweeping as one introduced last week by Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that would take responsibility for prosecution sexual assault cases away from the chain of command, making it easier for victims to seek justice.
The latest measure is more in line with the preferences of the military chiefs. Dempsey and other commanders have warned of a crisis of confidence in the growing ranks of women soldiers, but Pentagon leaders say that Gillibrand's approach risks weakening commanders' authority.
Senate aides said next month's Armed Services hearing would play a large part in determining the scope of a final legislation, adding that the flurry of bills - there have been several others introduced in both chambers - is a strong sign that something will be done to address the issue this year.
"I don't think anyone's absolutely confident of what is going to be the most effective reform that we can implement and so that's why I see it as productive to have more than one," said Republican Senator Susan Collins.