Senators from both sides of the aisle introduced landmark legislation to overhaul the Uniform Code of Military Justice by taking sexual assault cases and all other crimes punishable by more than a year in jail out of the chain of command and giving the power to convene courts martial to military trial lawyers.
Arguing that "our system is broken," Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Susan Collins ,R-Maine, joined others in sponsoring the bill. President Obama summoned Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey to the White House to demand a crackdown on sex abuse in the ranks.
To stress the importance of the issue, Obama also called in the service chiefs, the service secretaries and their senior enlisted advisers to confer on what Dempsey has termed a "crisis" in morale,
At a news conference joined by several House members, Gillibrand, head of the personnel subcommittee on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said "we believe enough is enough."
"It is time to change this system that has been held over since George Washington that is simply not working today for the men and women who are serving," she said.
"What the victims are telling us is that they feel they will not receive justice," Gillibrand said. "They're telling us that they fear retaliation or ostracization or that they will be punished. I think that is what has to change."
Collins asked "what does it say about us as a people, as a nation, as the foremost military in the world, when some of our servicemembers, both men and women, have more to fear from their fellow soldiers than from the enemy?"
The proposed Military Justice Improvement Act would take away the traditional authority of unit commanders to decide whether to refer charges to trial by special or general court martial.
Under the bill, the decision on whether to go to court martial would be taken out of the chain of command and that authority would rest with trial attorneys in the Judge Advocate General corps for all offenses – not just sexual assaults – punishable by one year or more in jail. Exceptions would be made for offenses that are unique to the military, such as absence without leave and disobeying orders.
The bill also incorporates changes already proposed by Hagel to Article 60 of the UCMJ which would take away the authority of officers who convene courts martial to set aside a finding of guilty or change a finding of guilty to a lesser included offense.
Support for the proposed legislation has snowballed following two incidents earlier this month in which military sex prevention officers were themselves charged with sex abuse. Senators and Representatives from both parties have expressed outrage over two other recent cases in which Air Force three-star generals acting as the convening authority overturned guilty verdicts in sex assault cases.
"The fact is that out of the 26,000 estimated sexual assaults in the military, only 3,000 were reported and only 300 were prosecuted. That means there are thousands of felons walking around -- free and dangerous -- in the military today," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., in announcing her support of the legislation.
Sen. Mike Johanns ,R-Neb., said "our military men and women put their lives on the line to keep us safe, yet that same promise can't be made to our soldiers when it comes to sexual assaults. This legislation helps ensure that these appalling crimes are fully prosecuted, in a timely manner, by military courts."
Hagel, while backing changes to Article 60 of the UCMJ, has expressed reservations about taking the referral authority on courts martial out of the chain of command. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, also has questioned whether legislation was necessary and recommended holding leadership responsible.
However, Obama has made clear that he expects quick action to punish sex offenders in the military.
"I don't want just more speeches or awareness programs or training, or ultimately folks look the other way. We're going to have to not just step up our game, we have to exponentially step up our game to go after this hard," the president said.
"Sexual assault is an outrage. It is a crime, and that's true for society at large," Obama said. "And if it happens inside our military, whoever is carrying it out is betraying the uniform that they're wearing."
On his way back from NATO meetings in Brussels, Dempsey told reporters on his plane Wednesday that "we're losing the confidence of the women who serve that we can solve this problem."
"That's a crisis," he said.
Dempsey told the Armed Forces Press Service that he believes the stress of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were factors in the growing incidents of sexual assault.
"I tasked those around me to help me understand what a decade-plus of conflict may have done to the force," Dempsey said. "Instinctively, I knew it had to have some effect. This is not to make excuses," he said. "We should be better than this. In fact, we have to be better than this."