WASHINGTON — A senior Army officer, accused of sexually assaulting a subordinate, agrees to plead guilty to lesser charges.

Another, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, is suspended and under investigation for allegedly groping a female lawyer who worked for him. Even more troubling is that this particular incident is said to have occurred during a sexual assault legal conference – and the man is the Army’s top prosecutor for sexual assault cases.

Unfortunately, these are just the latest examples of a sexual assault crisis in our nation’s military. According to a Pentagon report, nearly 3,200 cases of sexual assault in the military were reported in 2012, yet the true number may be six times higher. As many as one in three women leaving military service report that they experienced some form of sexual trauma while serving. And while 40 percent of sexual assault allegations in civilian life are prosecuted, the number in the military is an appallingly low 8 percent.

To be sure, the vast, overwhelming majority of our military personnel are honorable, conscientious and respectful individuals, not rapists or harassers. It is for their sake that the pattern of covering up, blaming the victim and failing to provide even the most basic protections, which has been all too common for far too long, must end.

The U.S. Senate recently passed some worthwhile reforms, but it unfortunately failed to consider the Military Justice Improvement Act, a bill authored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., of which I am the lead Republican sponsor.

This bill is a reasonable proposal designed to communicate to survivors and potential perpetrators alike that when survivors are subjected to these unacceptable crimes, they will have access to a legal system that fully protects their interests as much as the military’s.


Since 2004, I have been sounding the alarm over the military’s ineffective response to the growing crisis of sexual assault, including the need to ensure appropriate punishment for the perpetrators, to provide adequate care for the survivors of such reprehensible crimes, and to change the culture across the military so that sexual assault is unthinkable.

Ten years ago, responding to my questions about sexual assault during an Armed Services Committee hearing, Gen. George Casey Jr., then vice chief of staff of the Army, was dismissive – even though these are serious crimes that traumatize survivors and erode the trust and discipline fundamental to every military unit.

While the attitude among most senior military leaders today is markedly different, the work of translating the military’s stated policy of zero tolerance into reality remains unfinished business. Fostering a culture of zero tolerance so that the number of assaults is greatly diminished remains a goal, not reality. And ensuring that survivors do not think twice about reporting an assault for fear of retaliation or damage to their careers is still not part of the military culture.

The Defense STRONG Act, a bill I co-authored with then-Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was signed into law in 2012. It provides survivors of sexual assault the assistance of advocates with genuine confidentiality, guaranteed access to a lawyer and expedited consideration to be transferred far away from their assailant.

Those were helpful first steps. But more than anything, survivors need to have the confidence that the legal system in which they report a crime will produce a just and fair result.

As a result of more recent efforts, new laws are in place aimed at reducing the barriers to justice that many survivors of sexual assault face in the military.


Among them are provisions I authored to extend the STRONG Act to the Coast Guard; mandate a dishonorable discharge or dismissal for any service member convicted of sexual assault, and allow a commander to relocate an alleged perpetrator rather than the survivor. Another provision eliminates a commander’s ability to overturn a conviction by jury post-trial.

I am encouraged that we have been able to take these steps to address this vitally important issue. I remain cognizant that there are strong views at the Pentagon and in Congress about how we should best move forward from here, and what that may mean for the military’s unique legal system.

There are still some who advocate delay in reforming the system. I disagree. How many more victims will suffer before we act? How many more lives will be ruined? We must enact real reforms now to increase the confidence of survivors and strengthen prevention efforts.

Despite differing opinions on the best path, there is no question of Congress’ commitment to reducing the instances of sexual assault in the military and providing appropriate care for survivors. We are united by the need for serious reforms that will strengthen the military’s response. I am certain that our work will reduce unnecessary suffering and injustice felt by those who have survived these horrific crimes.

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