“This is an issue many of us have dealt with for years, and we find it unbelievably alarming that it is happening at the level it is in the military,” said Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), one of 20 women in the Senate, seven of whom serve on the chamber’s armed services panel.
President Obama raised the topic Friday in a speech to graduates at the U.S. Naval Academy, saying, “Those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they threaten the trust and discipline that makes our military strong.”
But most of the debate is occurring on Capitol Hill. Uniformed military leaders — virtually all of them men accustomed to polite and deferential questioning while testifying — are getting grilled by women unwilling to accept their explanations for the sharp rise in sexual assaults and a rash of sex-abuse scandals.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a former county prosecutor, drilled into the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, at a May 7 hearing, two days after the Air Force’s top sexual-assault prevention officer was arrested on charges of drunkenly groping a woman in a Northern Virginia parking lot.
“I know you had a bad weekend, General Welsh, and I understand that this is painful for you. But I need to ask a couple of questions,” McCaskill said as she interrogated him about the arrested officer’s work history.
“Yes, sir,” Welsh replied reflexively, before recognizing his faux pas. “Pardon me. Yes, senator, I have.”
It didn’t get any easier for Welsh later in the hearing when he was challenged by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) about the military procedures for prosecuting sexual-assault cases.
“I think there is a lack of understanding and training for this specific type of crime that is continuing to rise,” she lectured. “So, do you understand, General Welsh, that there is something that needs to be fixed?”
In interviews, female lawmakers said their gradually increasing numbers in Congress have undoubtedly given them more political clout on the issue. But some said they were cautious about playing up their gender or making it seem as if only women suffer sexual abuse in the military.
“The military has moved too slowly on this issue, and there needs to be a greater sense of urgency,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), also a member of the Armed Services Committee. “But to put this issue in the box as a women’s issue is to diminish it.”