Army Brass Noncommittal on Push to Remove COs from Sexual Assault Prosecution Decisions

U.S. Army Chief of Staff, Gen. James E. McConville.
U.S. Army Chief of Staff, Gen. James E. McConville, speaks with the Center for New American Security during a virtual event at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., April 27, 2021. (DoD/Chad J. McNeeley)

The Army's top uniformed and civilian leaders said Monday they are remaining "open-minded" while weighing a proposal that commanders be removed from the process of deciding whether to prosecute sexual assaults.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville and Acting Secretary John Whitley said the service is examining the recommendations of an independent review panel as well as the data and analysis behind the decision before giving Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin their opinion.

But, McConville said during a discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council, the service is "open-minded" about the independent review and proposed legislation that would require the Defense Department to make the change.

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"Everyone is concerned about sexual harassment, sexual assault in the Army, in the military, and we tragically lost Vanessa Guillen, which, quite frankly, broke my heart," McConville said. "I talked to her mother at the memorial service, and I made a pledge to her that we would put in place procedures that would help make this better."

Guillen, an Army specialist, was killed just over a year ago at Fort Hood, Texas, allegedly by a fellow soldier who later took his own life. Guillen had tried to report twice that she had been sexually harassed, but her leadership failed to take action either time.

The independent review commission recommended that, for certain special victims crimes, an independent judge advocate who reports to the chief special victim prosecutor should decide whether to bring charges against alleged perpetrators and/or court-martial them.

The services have opposed this proposal since it was first introduced in Congress in 2013, arguing that it would undermine good order and discipline and send a message that commanders cannot be trusted to make difficult decisions.

But Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week he has dropped his opposition to the proposal. He told The Associated Press that he also is open to considering the panel's recommendations because sexual assault and harassment remain a problem despite all the DoD has done to address them.

"We've been at it for years, and we haven't effectively moved the needle," Milley said. "We have to. We must."

Austin is seeking input from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and civilian leaders of the branches before making a decision.

Whitley said Army officials have received a briefing on the review panel's recommendations and asked for all of the data and analysis that went into the recommendations.

The service is conducting its own analysis of the data and is "in the process of developing our response -- what our position will be."

"For us, it's really going to come down to what the analysis says -- what will this do? Will this move the needle in a positive direction on sexual assault or move the needle in a negative direction?" Whitley said.

He added that the Army is doing an analysis to understand the scope of the problem in the service and in society overall.

"What do we know about the relative magnitude of the problem and the drivers of the problem? We're asking a lot of questions right now," he said.

A survey of military personnel conducted in 2018 found that more than 20,000 service members had been sexually assaulted but just a third had filed a formal report.

Reporting of assaults has also increased, up 13% in 2018 and 3% in 2019, according to the DoD.

McConville said the Army is taking steps to combat sexual harassment and assault in the ranks "along with extremism and racism and preventing suicides related to those harmful behaviors," such as improving its sexual assault prevention training and holding leaders accountable for command climate.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has pressed for years to take sexual assault cases out of the chain of command. A growing number of lawmakers are supporting her efforts this year in the wake of the Guillen case.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

Related: Army Disciplines 13 Leaders, Confirms Murdered Soldier Vanessa Guillen Was Sexually Harassed

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