If the Military Can't Handle Its Sexual Assault Problem, Congress Needs to Step In

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image of slain Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen and #IAmVanessaGuillen
An image of slain Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen and #IAmVanessaGuillen is seen before the start of a news conference on the National Mall in front of Capitol Hill, Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Emma Moore is a Research Associate at the Center for a New American Security and Non-Resident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University.

Katie Galgano is a Research Assistant at the Center for a New American Security specializing in democracy and governance.

Last week, a group of bipartisan lawmakers expressed their frustration with the military's handling of sexual assault by introducing the "I Am Vanessa Guillén Act," new legislation to address a long-standing problem.

Sexual misconduct is a pervasive problem in the military, with rates continuing to rise on a year-to-year basis. Instances of sexual assault and rape for service women increased from 4.3% in 2016 to 6.2% in 2018. This increase comes despite greater congressional, military and public attention and support to addressing sexual harassment in the ranks.

As a result of sexual assault and harassment, as many as 25% of survivors leave the military. Publicly, the military says it views sexual assault as a readiness issue. But internally, it is not treated like one.

The Department of Defense has spent millions on measures meant to prevent sexual assault, including forming a task force in 2004 that led to the creation of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) in 2005. Nevertheless, these efforts are failing. Congress already requires SAPRO to submit an annual report, but while the reports call attention to the ongoing issue, they have not led to substantive progress on prevention. As the DoD's solutions to sexual assault and harassment remain ineffective, Congress must continue to leverage its oversight ability to effect change.

Numerous lawmakers --including Reps. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Chellie Pingree, D-Maine; Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Martha McSally, R-Ariz.; and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa; and former Sen. Claire McCaskill, among others -- have advocated for change, but to little avail. Some male congressmen occasionally sponsor or support bills and amendments, but it has largely been left to the women to lead the charge in demanding change. For real, effective and permanent change to occur, this issue needs to be addressed and supported by both men and women.

To achieve this change, Congress should continue to employ its legislative prerogative to pass new laws aimed at decreasing sexual assault in the military and increasing support for survivors. For example, Sens. Gillibrand and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced the Safe to Report bill, aimed at protecting service members from retaliation for reporting sexual assault. Gillibrand also regularly advocates for removing sex crimes from the military justice system with the Military Justice Improvement bill, introducing it annually as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act.

There are competing arguments about whether prosecution should be kept under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but so far, insufficient change has occurred to adequately address sexual violence in the ranks. As Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said in 2014 on the issue, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result."

Should the DoD continue failing at comprehensively and effectively addressing sexual violence, Congress must intervene more robustly.

The most promising movement has been the bipartisan "I Am Vanessa Guillén" bill, co-sponsored by more than 90 lawmakers, which would substantially change the way sexual violence is treated within the military. The bill proposes making sexual harassment a crime under the UCMJ, moving prosecutorial decisions outside the chain of command, and establishing trained investigators, among others. Forging new ground, the bill is the most comprehensive legislation yet in requiring change across the services and illustrates the inadequacy of existing practice and Congress' role in oversight and accountability. Should the bill pass both houses and be signed into law, the services should lean into enabling and supporting change.

Aside from passing new legislation, Congress should continue calling attention to sexual assault and harassment in the ranks through public hearings to name and shame services and communities not taking adequate steps and to indicate the issue is a congressional priority.

As Richard Fontaine and Loren DeJonge Schulman wrote for the Center for a New American Security, through "coordinated questioning … hearings can draw the public eye" and increase public pressure for change. For instance, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel held a hearing on the military's #MeToo moment in July 2020 following Guillén's murder "to review lack of reporting of sexual harassment in the Department of Defense due to fear of retaliation."

Despite many reporting requirements, training measures, victim advocates, and attempts to reduce retaliation for reporting sex crimes, 58% of women still experience retaliation. Congressional hearings must question the weaknesses of military culture. Congressional leaders can also ask for more direct information, such as Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., requesting the Government Accountability Office to examine the Army's sexual assault program, or the "I Am Vanessa Guillén Act" requesting the GAO review the military's procedures for finding missing persons.

One of SAPRO's 2019 focus areas was "unit climate," on which it noted "male-dominated cultural norms are slowly changing" and "military culture is heading in the right direction, albeit slowly."

Each branch of the military has at least one core value regarding character -- integrity, honor, respect -- yet, as the number of sexual assault cases displays, this core value is not followed at even the most basic level of service member to service member. As Speier noted, there exists "a pernicious military culture, that time and time again, SAPRO report after SAPRO report exposes an environment that is ripe for sexual harassment."

Again, greater fail-safe measures must be in place to mitigate continued inconsistencies in military action versus pervasive culture. Members of Congress should continue to push leaders to answer how military culture successfully prioritizes physical fitness, military bearing and other requirements while failing to decrease the pervasiveness of sexual assault, regardless of what some DoD leaders claim.

The annual NDAA is a pathway for prompting culture change. Resources should be appropriated to address and hold accountable military culture as the root cause for sexual violence. Funding could be used to hire congressionally appointed independent inspectors to evaluate unit culture, regularly identified as the key variable in harassment and discrimination. Such cultural audits could be driven by these inspectors and staff, who would evaluate each unit, write a report with recommendations, and appear at a congressional hearing to answer questions. Furthermore, Congress can allocate money for implementing the recommendations and require military officials to report back to Congress, both in a written report and public hearing, on progress implementing the recommendations. Progress will be corroborated by the independent inspectors who could perform follow-up evaluations every other year.

Congress can also use its power of the purse to ensure that the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) and the Defense Advisory Committee on Investigation, Prosecution, and Defense of Sexual Assault in the Armed Forces (DAC-IPAD) continue to be funded at levels sufficient to complete their work and that the services take recommendations seriously.

Both advisory committees have the authority to demand key information from each of the services about current policies and shortcomings and have direct contact and influence with the secretary of defense to enact key reforms. DACOWITS reports that 98% of its more than 1,000 recommendations have been adopted in some form by the DoD. DAC-IPAD, largely viewed as objective, reviews allegations of sexual misconduct and reports to both the DoD and Congress. Providing these advisory boards with sufficient funding is vital to promoting the work they do and keeping their issues at the forefront with the secretary of defense.

The United States is not alone in struggling with this issue. The United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Australia all suffer from high levels of sex crimes in the military, and efforts to decrease cases have been largely unsuccessful. Lessons can be gleaned from our allies: Australian ministers launched a task force on defense abuse in 2012 with recommendations in a 2016 report. Furthermore, Australia associates a tangible monetary cost to abuse, offering reparations for survivors. To indicate the impact of sexual violence on the health of the force and readiness, Congress could follow suit to require the services host restorative engagement conferences, mandate reparation payments, and safe reporting.

Sexual assault in the military is a significant issue, particularly as it relates to recruiting and retaining talent and force readiness. Since the DoD cannot seem to get a handle on the issue, Congress must use its oversight, legislative and appropriation tools to effect change.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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