WASHINGTON (AP) — A bipartisan group of senators said on Tuesday that recent reforms have not been enough to improve the way sexual assault cases are handled in the military, and called on Congress to overhaul the military justice system to end retaliation against victims.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., chief sponsor of the Military Justice Improvement Act, wants the measure tacked to a defense authorization bill that has to be approved by the end of the year, or given an up-or-down vote. She told reporters that she would think about whether to use the issue to hold up confirmation of a new defense secretary, and vowed to push President Barack Obama to take executive action if lawmakers don't.
Early last year, a report on the 2012 anonymous survey results set off a furor when it estimated that 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted or subjected to unwanted sexual contact. Exasperated members of Congress complained that the Defense Department wasn't doing enough to combat sexual assault and tried to force changes in the Pentagon's legal and command procedures.
Some major changes were enacted, such as stripping commanders of the ability to overturn verdicts and strengthening protections for victims. But other potential changes — keeping defendants' commanders completely out of the process, for example — are still not law.
Gillibrand and a bipartisan group of her colleagues held a news conference on Capitol Hill where retired Col. Don Christensen recounted how he left his job as chief prosecutor in the Air Force because he thought he could change the system from the outside better than he could if he stayed in the service.
"We know a very small percentage of victims report, and of those few who do, 60 percent state they were retaliated against either personally or administratively," Christensen said. "We know only a few hundred cases result in convictions. And we know of those convicted, few receive comparable sentencing to predators who face civilian justice. Our sex offenders — these predators — know that they can commit these offenses with almost impunity. That must change."
As a military prosecutor, Christensen said he witnessed sexual assault victims being unfairly treated by the system.
"If you really knew what victims have to go through when they walk into a military courtroom, walk by their co-workers, their bosses, their commanders, their first sergeants, their squad leaders — all sitting behind her rapist — you would understand why we need to change the way we do things in the military," he said.