Protect our uniformed women
Posted: Monday, June 10, 2013 7:00 pm
By: By DOUGLAS COHN AND ELEANOR CLIFT
The Messenger 06.10.13
By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — It was an astounding admission when Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., confessed that he had advised the mother of a young woman interested in joining the military that he couldn’t in all good faith tell her it was the right career path for her daughter. McCain wasn’t faulting the military for lack of opportunity, or for gender discrimination, but for something far more basic, the continued inability to protect service women, and men too, from sexual assault, and to give those who are the victims of assault or sexual harassment a fair hearing without fear of retribution.
The service chiefs appeared together for questioning before the Senate Armed Services committee on Tuesday, offering an impressive array of medals and an acknowledgment that after years of promoting a “zero tolerance” policy, they had failed to curtail the rise of sexual assault and abuse within the ranks. With a record seven women on the Senate panel representing both political parties, the days appear to be over when military leaders could offer reassuring words without taking significant action to address the problem.
The numbers released in a Pentagon report last month showed a surge in the number of cases that were being reported together with an estimated 26,000 troops thought to have experienced “unwanted sexual contact.” The numbers were humbling for the dozen military leaders lined up at a long table, and they were appropriately contrite. “I’ll speak for myself: I took my eye off the ball a bit in the commands I had,” said Army Gen. Martin E Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But Dempsey and the others refused to give ground on what is the main sticking point as the Senate works to find legislative remedies for what ails the nation’s military, and prevents the world’s greatest armed force from protecting its own from sexual predators. Senator Kirsten Gillebrand, D-N.Y., is the chief sponsor of a bill that would take the prosecution of sexual crimes out of the chain of command and place the authority in outside uniformed prosecutors. Under the current system, a service woman or man reporting sexual assault could compromise their career by lodging a complaint with someone of higher rank who has a vested interest in the outcome, or in downplaying any alleged crime.
This is not unique to the military. In any area of life where somebody has authority over someone else, there have to be safeguards. In the military, where chain-of-command authority is absolute, there have to be extra safeguards in the form of checks and balances. Ideally, the generals should be coming up with ideas on how to provide this extra measure of safety and security for a military that is becoming more diverse. Women are now 15 percent of recruits and eligible to compete for combat positions, yet they are still a distinct minority deserving of certain protections, and they should be recognized as such.
The men in charge can’t continue to do things the way they’ve always done them, and remarks by Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, contained more than a whiff of nostalgia. “Without equivocation, I believe maintaining the central role of the commander in our military justice system is absolutely critical,” he said. “Removing commanders, making commanders less responsible, less accountable, will not work. It will hamper the delivery of justice to the people we most want to help.”
If commanders want to keep the responsibility for adjudicating complaints of a sexual nature, they could start with a rule for the men and women reporting to them that anybody who has knowledge of a crime and doesn’t report it is just as guilty as the perpetrator. Changing the culture away from one where these crimes are covered up to one where there is an incentive to report is the challenge, and if that isn’t done from within, Congress is right to step in.