About two dozen lawmakers and Obama administration officials crowded into the Roosevelt Room at the White House on May 9 for an urgent meeting about sexual assaults in the military. The most striking thing about the group, given the male-dominated world of national security, was that 85 percent of those around the table were women.
In contrast to other issues mired in gridlock, Congress is moving swiftly and on a bipartisan basis to force the Defense Department to crack down on sex crimes in the ranks. The push is being unmistakably led by female legislators, who constitute a critical mass on the armed services committees and whose patience with the Pentagon on the subject has frayed.
“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.”
According to a Pentagon survey of active-duty military personnel released this month, 6.1 percent of women and 1.2 percent of men reported receiving “unwanted sexual contact” last year. Only a small fraction of those reported the incidents. Advocacy groups say most victims fear retaliation or ostracism if they press charges.
Although there is a consensus among female legislators that more laws are needed to tackle the problem, there is a divergence over which proposals would be most effective.
Gillibrand, with several co-sponsors, is pushing a bill that would make sweeping changes in military law so that prosecutors, instead of commanders, would have the authority to decide whether to investigate or try sexual assault cases and other serious crimes.
Other lawmakers are reluctant to go that far, preferring to focus on ensuring that victims receive lawyers and additional forms of support.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has scheduled a rare hearing June 4 devoted exclusively to the subject of sexual assault in the military. Leaders of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are scheduled to testify, along with the judge advocate general for each branch of the armed forces.
Two female combat veterans of the Iraq war were elected to the House in November — Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) — and both have been critical of how the military handles sexual assault cases.
Other women in Congress said they recognized early on that sex crimes were a serious problem, but that it has taken longer to familiarize themselves with military bureaucracy and come up with possible solutions.
Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) said she was “taken aback” after she took office in 2007 and began hearing horror stories from female veterans. She has since become co-chairman of the House’s Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus and is sponsoring a bill that would, among other measures, mandate dismissal or dishonorable discharge for service members convicted of sex crimes.
“There’s no denying women are playing a very significant role on this on both sides of the aisle,” she said. “We don’t know all the ways of the culture of the military, but we’re learning as we go.”
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), a freshman on the Armed Services Committee, said it is no coincidence that the panel’s female members are the ones who usually raise questions about sexual harassment or assault during hearings.
“I have found in my time in politics that when you have a significant number of women sitting in a decision-maker’s chair, that it can move the discussion and focus in ways that would not have happened before,” Hirono said in an interview. “And I’m hopeful that this is one of those instances.”