Reports of rape and sexual assault were up 50 percent last year, according to a Pentagon study released on Thursday. What’s unclear is whether that reflects more reporting or more assaults. And what of the record in bringing justice to victims (of both sexes, by the way)?
Recently, the U. S. Navy reassigned a Blue Angels commander under investigation for sexual assault. We haven’t seen that very often, and it will be interesting to see what the ultimate disposition of the case is. According to The Washington Post, the Navy is looking into charges that the elite team of pilots “was a hotbed of hazing, sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination.” Captain Gregory McWherter’s alleged transgressions were between 2008 and 2012. While the investigation proceeds, he was removed from his post as executive officer of Naval Base Coronado near San Diego. That’s good news, but what happens now?
Our top-ranked general in Japan, accused of mishandling a sexual misconduct case in Japan, was, also according to The Post, simply moved to “a plum job” at the Pentagon. That institutional response is what we’ve come to expect. The Defense Department had a long history of denying problems with sexual assault. When it finally acknowledged there is a problem, it insisted that military commanders should continue to hold the power to deal with it. Pentagon pressures were able to defeat a bill to transfer enforcement power to military prosecutors, taking a decision to go to court martial outside the chain of command. The bill, filed by Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), fell five votes short of the 60 votes necessary to advance. Gillibrand will re-file, hoping that a still more recent spate of cases will push the legislation over the goal line.
This should not be a partisan issue, and it wasn’t. Eleven Republicans voted for the change, and ten Democrats were against. Third district (MA) Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, who supports the bill as a member of the House Armed Services Committee and co-chair of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, spoke to The New England Council a few weeks ago about the complexities of the problem. She grew up in an Air Force family and knows how the pecking order works, noting that the chain of command is “important to creating order and discipline in the normal course of things or in war, but doesn’t serve the military well in a judicial system.”
But the Gillibrand bill, Tsongas noted, won’t be a panacea. Commanders not only have the authority to decide what cases go forward, but also control the budget for the investigation and decide the jury. The culture is tough, to be sure, and, “You don’t disagree with the higher-ups too easily.”
At least we’re finally talking about these problems and trying to address them. Tsongas is clear that the uniform code of military justice may not be an instrument of justice in sexual assault cases. But, she said, “hope is never lost.” The challenge is whether strategically to go for the strongest and most comprehensive bill or to move piece by piece and improve things incrementally. Realistically, it may end up being the same thing, but we’re not there yet.
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