May 28, 2013

’Tis the season for scandals — real and manufactured — in Washington. But if our elected officials are searching for a real scandal, maybe they should start with the officer leading the Air Force’s anti-sexual assault initiative who was charged with sexual battery this month. Or the sergeant in Texas who allegedly forced a subordinate into prostitution. Or the 26,000 sexual assaults that happened in our military last year alone.

This epidemic has festered for far too long. At this moment, an American female soldier in a war zone is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. Under the current military justice system, victims must sometimes report a rape to their own rapist. Unmarried victims raped by married men can be charged with adultery, while the rapist goes free.

This is all powerfully documented in the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary “The Invisible War.” The film exposes a military rife with misogyny and sexual harassment. It lays bare the stark reality sexual assault survivors face: Reporting these traumatic crimes often leads to even more trauma. Too often, victims’ claims are used against them, and they are ignored, interrogated or ridiculed. The result is a military system that makes it easier to rape — and easier to get away with it.

Right now, if an American in uniform is raped, her only option is to go to a commanding officer, who then decides what action — if any — to take. Imagine a teacher is raped by a coworker on her way to work. But instead of going to the police, she’s forced to report the crime to her principal, who then gets to decide whether the rapist is pursued or ever stands trial. In no other realm of society would we permit such a system.

This is the real scandal on which Congress should be focused right now. Fortunately, some on Capitol Hill are doing just that. Last week, a bipartisan group of senators, led by Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Barbara Boxer of California, introduced a bill that would remove the investigation and prosecution of sex crimes from the military chain of command. Instead, it would put these decisions in the hands of military prosecutors, trained in sexual assault investigations, who cannot be influenced by senior officers in the chain of command.

At one of the most traumatic moments of her life, a rape survivor needs someone she can trust. She needs someone trained to help her, trained in the law and standing on her side. She does not need her boss.

So far, however, this administration and some members of Congress look more concerned with protecting the command structure than protecting victims of sexual assault.

A few weeks ago, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel emphatically said, “It is my strong belief — and I think others on Capitol Hill and within our institution — the ultimate authority has to remain within the command structure.” His press secretary later walked that back, and said all options are on the table.

President Obama says he’s committed to action — and he should be applauded for speaking up on the issue last year, in one of the first official statements ever by a president on this issue. At the Naval Academy’s commencement last Friday, he said of those who commit sexual assault, “They’ve got no place in the greatest military on earth.” The previous week, the president insisted, “I don’t just want more speeches or awareness programs or training, but ultimately folks look the other way.”

But strong words do not equal strong action. President Obama seems reluctant to actually challenge the military chain of command that too often leaves criminals in place. Two weeks ago, he assembled the top Pentagon brass at the White House to address what he called “shameful and disgraceful” actions in the military. But even at that meeting, while he denounced the criminals, he also went out of his way to give the benefit of the doubt to the system that enables them.

“I’m not sure we’ve incentivized some of our top people to understand this is as core to our mission as anything else,” he said. “And we’ve got to reward them, not think of this as a sideline for anything else that they do, but incentivize ambitious folks in the ranks to make sure that they understand this is important.”

Really? The problem is that military officials — the defenders of our nation — didn’t know it was important to punish thousands of sexual criminals? The chain of command has failed on this issue. When thousands of servicemen and women are sexually assaulted every year, that is a failure. When one in five of all active-duty female soldiers are sexually assaulted, that is a failure. When military sexual assault is on the rise, that is a failure. It’s a record of incompetence at best, and outright complicity at worst. And there is no reason to protect the system that made this record possible.

The Gillibrand/Boxer bill has 16 additional co-sponsors, and a congressional hearing is scheduled for June 4. Both the president and the Pentagon are paying attention. After nearly a decade of Boxer and others fighting sexual assault in the military, we’ve seen this much progress because a critical mass of female lawmakers, including five Democratic women on the Senate Armed Services Committee, have given this issue the urgency and attention it deserves.

But they can’t make change alone. The bill still faces an uphill battle against opponents like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who fear upsetting the Pentagon.

This is bigger than many of the phony scandals Washington is obsessed with. Our troops deserve a Congress — and a commander in chief — brave enough to really stand by them.

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