Tackling the problem of military sexual assault will require a culture change in Congress as well as in the armed forces, according to Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, who on Thursday announced that a bipartisan bill giving military attorneys outside of a victim’s chain of command the ability to bring a case to trial would not get a House vote.
Gabbard, an Iraq War veteran who continues to serve as an captain in the Hawaii Army National Guard, sponsored the bi-partisan “Military Justice Improvement Act” with Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., a doctor whose daughter served in the Navy for five years.
“I think it is unfortunate that we are standing here looking at a road forward that continues some level of the status quo,” Gabbard said in an afternoon press conference. “That when push came to shove these serious proposals … have been ignored, and at best watered down.”
The move came one day after a similar measure was rejected by the Senate Armed Services Committee. In a surprise move on Wednesday committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., proposed a competing amendment to the bill sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY; Gillibrand’s bill also would have put the decision to prosecute sexual assaults in the hands of military lawyers outside the chain of command.
The Pentagon's apparent inability to turn around the problem has infuriated Congress in recent months, but not enough, in the end, to go against the urging of the service chiefs and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to let commanders retain their authority when it comes to prosecuting sexual assault cases.
Asked Thursday if the culture has to change in Congress as well as the military in order to fix the problem, Gabbard agreed.
“I think so,” she said.
An estimated 26,000 active-duty troops had unwanted sexual contact in fiscal 2012, up from about 19,300 in 2010, the Defense Department revealed in a May 7 report. Also last year 3,374 troops reported sexual assaults, an increase of 5.7 percent from the previous year, the report states.
In putting the decision to prosecute sexual assault cases in the hands of a military lawyer outside the victim’s chain of command, the legislation would have made U.S. military consistent with those of Canada, Britain and Israel, Benishek said.
“I don’t understand. It seems like a common sense solution” to remove command discretion in the decision to prosecute sexual assaults, he said. “I don’t think they understand the difficulty of victims to report [the crimes], and then know their coworkers may find out about it, know their commanders will know intimate details of an extremely personal and difficult episode.”
Gabbard and Benishek said they would continue to push for the legislation by bringing more sponsors on board.
“We look forward to being able to continue to garner more support for this issue,” she said, “to be able to raise the level of conversation, to inform people about why this is necessary, and to make sure that we are honoring our selfless heroes and our servant leaders by finding a resolution to this issue.”