Hanging on walls in most offices at Fort Hood are photos of the chain of command. From the company commander up to the president, it’s clear who’s in charge of any given Army unit.
Legislation awaiting a vote in the Senate would remove a commander’s power when a sexual assault is involved. While everyone agrees sexual assault among service members has gotten out of control, finding a solution seems harder to define.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s legislation would strip military commanders of any involvement in determining how rape and sexual assault cases are handled, turning them over to specialized military prosecutors.
Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has the support of Texas’ new Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.
The military estimates that as many as 26,000 service members were the targets of unwanted sexual contact last year, but only 3,374 incidents of sexual assault were reported to military officials.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno has spoken out against Gillibrand’s idea, and many who follow military affairs agree with him.
“I trust our commanders to take the appropriate action, but it’s clear they all haven’t done that,” said retired Lt. Gen. Pete Taylor. As a former commander, including leading III Corps and Fort Hood, Taylor said he is 100 percent against Gillibrand’s proposal.
If specific commanders aren’t doing their jobs, they should be replaced, Taylor said.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he agrees with Army leadership that removing commanders from the process is not the answer. Instead, he said earlier this month he supports legislation by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. Her amendment would provide sexual assault victims in all military branches with a special victims’ counsel, a trained military lawyer to guide the victim throughout the legal process.
“(This legislation) would not break the chain of command, which I think is absolutely critical to maintaining order in the military, which is a unique institution,” Cornyn said Nov. 6.
Taylor said it can be difficult for people outside the military to understand just how unique an institution it is, but it has to be, “because of what we ask the Army to do.” Most civilians don’t have jobs that put their lives in jeopardy on a routine basis.
“Our justification of having a separate military justice system is the belief that commanders are responsible for what is happening and does not happen in their area of responsibility,” Taylor said.
A proposal by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., seems a better fit, he said.
McCaskill told the Washington Post her review of military records found no example of a commander declining to refer a serious case for prosecution. But there are almost 100 cases in the past two years in which prosecutors declined to take a sexual assault case and a commander insisted that it be tried, she said.
Instead, she is pushing to drop the “good soldier” defense from military evidence rules in sexual assault and rape cases unless a defendant’s military character is directly relevant to the crime alleged. She also wants more stringent civilian reviews of disagreements between military prosecutors and commanders. The Post wrote her proposals are expected to easily pass the Senate.
Grace After Fire, a Fort Worth-based nonprofit helping female veterans transition into civilian life, often hears from women who experienced sexual trauma in the military, said Stacy Keyte, North Texas coordinator for the organization. A veteran herself, Keyte said she supports Gillibrand’s proposal.
“It’s kind of easier to talk to someone that you haven’t worked with and feels like family. It’s no different than going to your brother or sister and explaining what happened to you. It’s difficult. It changes your entire work environment,” she said.
Gillibrand is looking to get the legislation added as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which will still be waiting for the Senate once it returns from a two-week Thanksgiving break.