Sexual Assault in the Military: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s Proposals for Change

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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand during a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan
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A recent Pentagon report demonstrates the severity of the problem: based on anonymous surveys, the Defense Department estimates that 26,000 members of the military were sexually assaulted in fiscal year 2012, up from 19,000 the year before. Of these 26,000 victims, only a small fraction, 3,374 in 2012, reported the crime.

These grim statistics combined with recent sexual battery charges against the Air Force's sexual assault prevention chief and similar accusations against an Army coordinator at Fort Hood have Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) pushing for changes in the military's handling of sexual assault cases. 

In the current system, these cases are reported and adjudicated within a victim's chain of command. Victims report to their commanding officer and, Senator Gillibrand says, "There is a fear that the commanding officer will not take them seriously, or punish them for reporting." 

Gillibrand's proposed legislation would allow victims to "report these cases to the JAG attorneys, the prosecutors who will prosecute the case," removing the case from the chain of command so that commanding officers with potential conflicts of interest would no longer be in charge of deciding whether a case should go to trial. 

While she commends JAG attorneys for their work, because of the charges against sexual assault prevention specialists and the growing number of victims, Gillibrand believes that the overall adjudication of these crimes and the dynamics within the military need to change. 

"For one of the Air Force Chiefs of Staff to have testified...that part of the incident rate is because of the hook-up culture that's being held over from high school demonstrates how there is so little understanding," she says, referring to recent comments by Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh to the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

"Sexual assault and rape is a crime of violence, it's a crime of aggression, it's a crime of dominance; it may not even be related to sex in any way. These are violent crimes that are often committed by recidivists, people who have done it over and over again, where they target their victim and are really predators."