The role of women in the military has changed considerably in just a few years. Recently the Pentagon took the big step of allowing women to officially serve in combat.
Unfortunately, the military justice system and, in a broader sense, the overall military culture has failed to keep pace with these changes. That was evident in the testimony by women victims of sexual assault during a Senate panel hearing last week.
During a two-part hearing, the panel heard stories from several victims who said military justice is broken. They urged Congress to act immediately to stem the rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment they said are pervasive in all branches of the military.
The stories were harrowing. In one case, a former Army sergeant told the panel that she was raped by another service member while serving in Afghanistan, but her case was eventually closed after senior commanders decided not to pursue charges.
Another incident highlighted a fundamental problem with the military’s legal system. An Air Force lieutenant colonel was found guilty by a jury of military officers on charges of abusive sexual contact, aggravated sexual assault and three instances of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman.
But under military regulations, a commander who convenes a court martial, known as the convening authority, has the sole discretion to reduce or set aside guilty verdicts and sentences or to reverse a jury’s verdict. That is what the convening officer, a lieutenant general, did in this case, overturning the colonel’s conviction and having him released from the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston where he was serving a year’s sentence after which he was to be dismissed from the service.
These are not isolated incidents. Nearly 2,500 sexual violence cases in the military services were reported in 2011, but only 240 made it to trial, said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee.
The problem of giving commanding officers the unilateral authority to determine the fate of such cases is obvious. They usually have a professional relationship with the accused and often with the victim as well. Impartiality under those circumstances is virtually impossible.
The first step in ensuring that victims of sexual assault can find justice in the military is to establish a fair and impartial criminal justice system run by professionals and legal experts. And the rulings made by judges and juries at courts-martial proceedings should not be allowed to be overturned by a single officer.
But the military must go farther than that if men and women are to serve side by side in harmony. Officers must be trained to follow a prescribed set of actions whenever an accusation of sexual assault or harassment occurs in the ranks.
Some women victims have testified that they were forced to continue to serve alongside their attackers. That is unacceptable. Alleged victims in the military should have all the same legal and physical protections afforded civilian victims.
U.S. servicewomen have made strides in proving their capability of handling any job performed by their fellow servicemen. And perhaps attitudes will change as more and more women advance in rank.
But the Pentagon can’t sit back and wait for that to happen. It has to take action now to ensure that sexual assault cases are handled quickly and fairly, and that offenders are disciplined.
As last week’s hearing indicates, the brass have their work cut out for them.