What Will it Take?

Published: March 12, 2014

By Jim Lichtman
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Three stories appearing in last Friday’s (Mar. 7) New York Times grabbed my attention.

“An Army judge on Thursday accepted guilty pleas from Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair to misconduct charges, including possession of pornography and inappropriate relationships with female soldiers. But the general, a former deputy commander of American forces in southern Afghanistan, still faces court-martial on charges that he sexually assaulted a junior officer with whom he had an extramarital relationship.”

According to The Times, “Sinclair is one of the highest ranking officers to face court-martial in recent…” not years, decades.

Immediately following this story, “A sergeant responsible for advising students at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., has pleaded guilty in a case that included accusations that he secretly videotaped female cadets, some as they undressed in the locker room, and will serve a 33-month sentence, the Army said Thursday.”

Last May, The Times reported that “House Speaker John A. Boehner…called the rise of sexual assaults in the military a ‘national disgrace’ as lawmakers in both chambers of Congress moved closer this week to legislation to address the problem.

“Mr. Boehner’s comments came after several weeks of continued reports of sexual assault in the armed forces and after a Pentagon survey estimated that 26,000 people in the armed forces were sexually assaulted last year, up from 19,000 in 2010.

“On Thursday [May 23], Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, and Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said they would introduce a bill to limit a military commander’s ability to change or dismiss a court-martial conviction for sexual assault. The bill would also require mandatory dismissals or dishonorable discharges for anyone in the military convicted of rape or sexual assault. Ms. McCaskill said she was hoping for bipartisan support.”

And what happened to that bill?

Last Thursday (Mar. 7), “The Senate… rejected a controversial bipartisan bill to remove military commanders from decisions over the prosecution of sexual assault cases in the armed forces, delivering a defeat to advocacy groups that argued that wholesale changes are necessary to combat an epidemic of rapes and sexual assaults in the military.

“The measure, pushed by Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, received 55 votes — five short of the 60 votes needed for advancement to a floor vote — after a fellow Democrat, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, led the charge to block its advancement. The vote came after a debate on the Senate floor filled with drama and accusations that Ms. Gillibrand and her allies were misguided.”

Misguided?

We’re not talking about how to deal with debt, the deficit, Syria, Afghanistan or the Russians in Crimea. We are talking about something that is WITHIN the scope of bipartisan action. Congress can and SHOULD deal with this. They choose not to.

And they’re reasoning for not acting?

“Because commanders often know both the victims and the accused abusers, Ms. Gillibrand’s supporters say, victims often shy away from reporting abuse. Military commanders, they say, have not proven themselves able to deal with the issue.

” ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,’ [Kentucky Senator Rand] Paul said. [Iowa Senator Charles] Grassley added: ‘The Defense Department has been promising the American people for a long time that they’re working on the problem of sexual assault.’ Then he said, ‘Enough is enough.’ ”

This is an issue where actionable reports have increased 37 percent, and yet the Senate refuses to act on what is a clear matter of respect and accountability.

“After blocking Ms. Gillibrand’s bill,” The Times writes, “the Senate agreed, 100-0, to move ahead with a measure sponsored by Ms. McCaskill and two Republicans, Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska. The legislation calls for a civilian review if a prosecutor and commander disagree over whether to litigate a sexual assault case. A vote on that bill is scheduled for next week.”

A civilian review only if a prosecutor and commander disagree.” The military has had several opportunities to fix this and things have grown only worse.

While Senator Gillibrand intends to continue to push her bill, Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said “Our lawmakers should be able to provide a fair and effective military justice system worthy of our veterans and service members.”

My question for the Senate: What will it take for Congress to act? How many more military victims do we need to see testify before a congressional committee?

What will it take to change a culture of suspicion and shame to one that honors respect; a culture soldiers can trust?

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