UPDATE, May 17, 3:35 p.m. EST: Since RH Reality Check published this article, Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, told reporters that he was open to removing the authority to prosecute sex crimes from the chain of command, according to Stars and Stripes, a newspaper for members of the military. That is the remedy that Sen. Kristen Gillibrand’s proposed Military Justice Improvement Act would apply.
Welsh’s remarks put him ahead of many members of Congress; as of May 16, none of the top leaders of either party in the House or Senate had signed on to Gillibrand’s bill. As noted in the article below, Welsh kicked up some dust earlier this month when he blamed the military’s sexual assault crisis on what he called a civilian “hook-up culture.” His newly articulated position on military justice reform also came on the heels of yet another arrest of a military sexual abuse prevention officer, Army Lt. Col. Darren Haas, who was charged with violating a restraining order obtained by his ex-wife.
Pressure is mounting on Capitol Hill for a meaningful answer to the crisis of sexual assault in the U.S. military. In response, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) hosted a press conference Thursday to promote legislation that would remove from the chain of command in the nation’s armed forces the reporting and adjudication of sexual crimes, along with other felonies that are not specifically military in nature.
Last week, the Pentagon released its latest report on sexual assault, and many lawmakers have expressed fury that sexual crimes against active duty members of the armed forces escalated by some 37 percent over the previous year’s estimate. The situation only got worse after the lieutenant in charge of the Air Force’s sexual assault reporting operation was arrested for sexual battery of a civilian, and a subsequent news report revealed several complaints of rape against military recruiters.
While senators and House members, including several Republicans, took the podium to express support for Gillibrand’s proposed bill, leaders of both parties and chambers have yet to sign on to a measure that is sure to meet with fierce resistance among military brass. (See our earlier story on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s remarks on the Gillibrand measure.)
Nonetheless, Gillibrand told RH Reality Check, she hoped to build enough support within the Senate Armed Services Committee to include her proposal in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual law that sets the budget and expenditures, as well as other requirements, for the Department of Defense.
“[T]oo often, these brave men and women find themselves in the fight of their lives not off on some far-away battlefield, but right here on our own soil, within their own ranks and commanding officers, as victims of horrific acts of sexual violence,” Gillibrand said.
Susan Collins, a Republican supporter of Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act, reiterated her claim that “our women soldiers sometimes have more to fear from their fellow soldiers than from the enemy,” a point she first made at a 2004 hearing on sexual assault in the military, only to have Gen. George Casey interject that he believed her statement to be “absolutely and fundamentally” untrue. (Casey, who went on to become the U.S. Army chief of staff, has since retired from the military.) Collins’ staff passed out excerpts from the transcript of the 2004 hearing.
Gillibrand also introduced her audience to three military veterans who said they suffered punishment from the military when they reported having been the victims of sex crimes perpetrated against them by their comrades.
Jennifer Norris, a former sergeant in the Air Force Reserve, was accompanied to the press conference by a service dog who, she says, assists her with the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) she experiences because of assaults by four different perpetrators during her military career. (You can read her harrowing story here.) Norris’ military career ended, she writes, when her security clearance was revoked for having a PTSD diagnosis. Today she works as a victim advocate at the Military Rape Crisis Center, a non-profit organization that offers support to those who suffer sexual abuse while serving in the military.
As she sat in the front row at the press conference, Norris’ eyes began to overflow with tears, causing Sen. Barbara Boxer, who was then at the podium, to remark, “I hope those are tears of hope.”
Norris affirmed that they were, saying that she was moved because she never thought she’d see the day when such change as that proposed by Gillibrand could take place.
Not that she thinks attitudes have changed all that much at the top. Citing the remarks of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh at a Senate hearing earlier this month, Norris said: “I want to make it clear to Gen. Welsh that blaming a civilian ‘hook-up culture’ for the epidemic does nothing but contribute to victim-blaming—excusing perpetrators—and it belittles the serious nature of these crimes.”
“I’ve pretty much dealt with my own stuff,” Norris told RH Reality Check after the press conference. “It’s the people that I’m working with currently—the reasons [they hesitate to come forward]—that breaks my heart. The same stuff that happened to me all that many years ago is happening to this day. What I would like to say to each and every senator and representative that doesn’t sign onto this bill is: ‘Work one day in my job, and you will hear every day how bad things really are.’”
Also recounting their experiences of sexual assault were former Army sergeant Ayana Harrell and former Navy petty officer Brian Lewis, who said that when he reported having been raped, he was diagnosed with a mental disorder and given a discharge from the service that prevented him from collecting such benefits as those offered under the GI Bill.
Harrell says she was drugged and gang-raped at the Redstone Arsenal Base, became pregnant from the assault, and was determined by the military to have “a personality disorder” after she reported the crime.
The problem of rape culture in the military is not unique to the U.S., but other countries—including the United Kingdom, Israel and Australia—have addressed the problem by removing the reporting and prosecution of such crimes from the chain of command. Too often, victims of sexual assault have suffered retribution for reporting crimes perpetrated against them, especially when the attacks are made by superior officers, while others have seen convictions of their attackers overturned by commanding officers, who currently have that authority.
Yet congressional leaders seem loath to take on military brass. RH Reality Check asked Gillibrand to respond to Sen. Reid’s apparent reluctance to sign on to her bill.
“All of us who support this bill—our job now is to begin to talk to more colleagues,” Gillibrand said, noting that there is no “quick fix” what she called an “epidemic,” as well as a “cultural challenge and structural problem.”
The senator from New York noted that there are other “complementary” measures that may be included in a base mark-up bill, including a proposal by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) that would improve record-keeping of sexual assault complaints, and one co-sponsored by Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) that would provide greater resources to victims.
After the press conference, I asked Anu Bhagwati, a military veteran and executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), why she thought there was such resistance to removing matters involving sexual assault from the chain of command within the military justice system.
“I think military tradition is something that is hard to change,” Bhagwati said. “We’re talking about a legal structure that has been in place for 250 years, and it has no meaning anymore. We have so many troops who are being harmed by this justice system, or lack-of-justice system, that we need to change it.”
Gillibrand’s allies on this legislation include Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Mazie Hirano (D-HI), Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT),and Mike Johanns (R-NE), as well as Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Dan Benishek (R-MI), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), and others.