Military's Sexual Assault Problem Belongs in Prosecutors' Hands | Commentary

Despite recent initiatives by the Defense Department, many victims of military sexual assault tell us they still aren’t confident that enough is being done to end sexual violence.

Confidence in the existing procedures dropped further when the director of the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office at the Pentagon was arrested and charged with sexual battery for allegedly groping and assaulting a woman in a parking lot just last May.

And when Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, states that “we entered this period of 12 years of conflict ... I think I took my eye off the ball a bit in the commands that I had,” the need for details on how we will put eyes back on the ball and prevent further assaults becomes all the more urgent.

Sexual assault is an issue that affects everyone who has served in the military. It has a uniquely devastating impact on each victim. Sexual assault isn’t about sex — it’s about power and humiliation.

Nor is it an issue only for our women warriors. The Pentagon has estimated that of the 26,000 service members who experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2012, more than half were men.

Being victimized by sexual assault frequently drives people to abandon their military careers, costing them their futures and the armed forces the loss of trained, capable and dedicated personnel. For many, it’s not just the trauma of the assault that causes them to leave the military but the fact that their complaint was not taken seriously — or, in some cases, was mocked while the perpetrator was never prosecuted.

The military criminal justice system simply hasn’t worked for victims of sexual assault. After hearing stories where cases were swept under the rug or where verdicts have been overturned, many service members still don’t believe their cases will be handled effectively and objectively. Even worse, in a system where reporting a sexual assault has led to wide-spread retaliation, many victims are afraid to risk reporting the crime when they can’t be confident that the system will hold perpetrators accountable.

The military has recently announced steps to try to improve the military justice system for victims. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the military would remove a commander’s ability to overturn a verdict of a case. In August, the military announced that they would give victims access to a special victims counsel, a lawyer to help guide them through the military justice system.

These steps don’t go far enough.

These measures still don’t address the essential issue of how cases move to trial. The decision to prosecute sexual assault is now assigned to officers in the chain of command and not to experienced military prosecutors, making the issue of whether to go to trial a command decision and not a legal one.

The Military Justice Improvement Act, introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., as an amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, would delegate the decision to prosecute certain serious crimes (those punishable by confinement of more than a year) to military prosecutors, just as prosecutors make such decisions in the civilian criminal justice system.

Instead of commanding officers who rely on staff attorneys to perform the complex legal analysis required to decide what cases to charge, experienced military prosecutors would make decisions based on the facts of the case alone. Under the proposed changes, commanders would retain authority over all other offenses — including those that are “uniquely military” in nature, such as being AWOL and disobeying a direct order.

As veterans and civilians, we have a deep responsibility to ensure the well-being of those who commit themselves to our nation’s defense. At the very least, we are obligated to ensure that they don’t face sexual predators within their ranks. Even more, each victim of sexual assault must feel fully supported by the institution they serve.

Such support will require changes in the military justice system — changes that begin by including the Military Justice Improvement Act in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act.

Nancy K. Kaufman is CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women. Paul Rieckhoff, a first lieutenant and infantry rifle platoon leader in Iraq from 2003 to 2004, is the founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.