Crackdown on military sexual assault may focus on commanders

WASHINGTON (AP) — From Congress to the White House, pressure is mounting to hold military commanders accountable for the rising number of sexual assaults in the armed services.

“This needs to end,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and a member of the Armed Services Committee, said Sunday. “When a victim comes forward, they should have an advocate to walk them through the military justice system, and commanders who continue to allow this to flourish quite frankly should be fired.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the military’s future includes both men and women in leadership, and cultural changes are needed “when it comes to the command structure” to make sexual assault and harassment “unacceptable, intolerable; and those who engage in it should pay a price.”

But the U.S. military’s top officer, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, is urging Congress to exercise caution as it crafts legislation to combat the growing epidemic of sexual assaults in the armed forces.

The extent of the assaults came to light when the Pentagon released a report earlier this month estimating that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year and that thousands of victims are unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs. That figure is an increase over the 19,000 estimated assaults in 2011.

Retired Gen. John Allen, who left the Marines in February after 19 months commanding allied forces in Afghanistan, encouraged commanders to address the issue and tell subordinates exactly what was expected.

“Commanders can’t be ambiguous about this. We can’t not talk about that,” Allen said Sunday. “Commanders (have) got to stand in front of their units and tell the people what they expect. Because silence isn’t good enough.”

The comments from Durbin, Graham and Allen capped a week of attempts to address the Pentagon’s findings. President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel raised the issue separately in graduation speeches at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Members of a House panel on Wednesday approved legislation that would strip commanding officers of their longstanding authority to unilaterally change or dismiss court-martial convictions in rape and assault cases.

The bill would also require that service members found guilty of sexual offenses be dismissed or dishonorably discharged. The legislation will be folded into a broader defense policy bill that the full House will consider in the coming weeks.

Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has acknowledged the severity of the problem. He said recently that military leaders are losing the confidence of the women who serve that they can come up with solutions.

But Dempsey said in a May 20 letter to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee that any legislative remedies must maintain the commander’s role in the military justice process. Cutting them out or limiting them too severely would undercut their authority to enforce discipline and execute their duties, he wrote.

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