Emboldened by an investigation by the Associated Press that revealed a “chaotic” and erratic application of punishment for sexual assault within the armed forces on U.S. military bases in Japan, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) on Monday demanded that the Pentagon turn over the records of sexual assault cases from a number of major U.S. military bases, the AP reports, including Fort Hood in Texas, Naval Air Station Norfolk in Virginia, Camp Pendleton in California, and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
In a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Gillibrand reportedly said she expects a more timely response than the four years it took the AP to acquire, via the Freedom of Information Act, the records from the U.S. bases in Japan.
Ever since May, when Gillibrand first set out to change the way Uniform Code of Military Justice addresses charges of sexual assault, the pushback from the military brass and their allies in Congress has been fierce, especially as Gillibrand steadily built support and found co-sponsors for her Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA). Just last week, as RH Reality Check reported, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) threatened to filibuster the measure should it be introduced, a stunning rebuff from a member of her own party.
The MJIA would remove the adjudication of sexual assault and other serious crimes from the chain of command. Supporters say this change would rid the process of an inherent conflict of interest on the part of commanders, and would create an environment in which those who suffered an assault would be more likely to come forward.
The AP investigation of sexual assault cases at the U.S. bases in Japan appear to corroborate the stories of assault survivors at other military bases, some of whom have told those stories at press events convened by Gillibrand. At an unprecedented hearing held by the Senate Armed Services Committee in June, senators heard from advocates for survivors of career-ending retaliation against members of the armed forces who pressed assault complaints against assailants from within their ranks.
One case that made national headlines was that of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, whose conviction of sexual assault against a woman who stayed at his home was overturned by his commander, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin (who has since announced his intention to retire from the military).
In the AP investigation of cases at the U.S. bases in Japan, reporters Yuri Kageyama and Richard Lardner found that, even when convicted, perpetrators of sexual assault rarely served time. They write:
Nearly two-thirds of 244 service members whose punishments were detailed in the records were not incarcerated. Instead they were fined, demoted, restricted to their bases or removed from the military. In more than 30 cases, a letter of reprimand was the only punishment.
Lardner and Kageyama open their article with the story of a woman stationed at the Marine base in Okinawa, who was awakened in her bunk by a fellow service member who was raping her. DNA evidence backed her claim, but her assailant was allowed to plea to a lesser charge, “wrongfully engaging in sexual activity in the barracks.” His rank was reduced and he was confined to the base for 30 days.
“In two rape cases,” write Kageyama and Lardner, “commanders overruled recommendations to court-martial and dropped the charges instead.” In one of those cases, the complainant had taped a conversation in which her assailant had admitted to the assault.
If Gillibrand succeeds in obtaining the records she seeks, the results could be explosive. At Fort Hood, for example, a sergeant tasked with conducting the base’s sexual harassment prevention program is alleged to have run a prostitution ring under the nose of commanders.