Change handling of military abuse; commanders lax about sexual assaults

In our country, as in all free countries, civilian control of the military is a fundamental principal.

That's why there are Senate hearings this week about sexual assault in the military.

It's why we even know that there were over 26,000 reported cases of unwanted sexual contact reported in the military last year, a 37 percent increase from the year before.

And it's why we know an even more frigthening statistic: that almost 90 percent of military personnel who have been victims of unwanted sexual advances have not reported them.

It's that last number that makes it imperative that Congress remove investigation, adjudication and punishment of charges of sexual assault from the chain of command.

Clearly, many victims aren't confident that their claims will be heard fairly and with no damage to their careers.

Military leaders testifying before Congress object to the change, asserting that maintaining a clear chain of command is critical to enforcing discipline within a fighting unit.

But the problem with that became clear during the testimony Tuesday of Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When asked by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., why little had changed in 20 years despite all the accounts of assault, he said, "I took my eye off the ball in the commands I had."

During a decade of war, improving the "command climate," had been pushed aside.

It's clear that military commanders haven't, despite public protests to the contrary, raised preventing sexual assault to the top of the agenda. The numbers prove that.

So now it's time for Congress to assure this issue isn't pushed aside any longer.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has proposed legislation to take the process of deciding whether serious crimes — including sexual misconduct cases — go to trial, out of the hands of commanders and into those of military lawyers or others outside the chain of command.

That's the approach taken by several of our allies, including Germany, Israel, Great Britain, Australia and Canada.

In Canada, according to a report compiled by Service Women's Action Network, complaints go to a grievance board made up of civilians and independent from the chain of command.

Australia, according to the report, moves cases out of the chain of command because it "is perceived to be part of the problem/failed to address the problem."

The bottom line here is that we civilians must protect the people — men and women — who volunteer to go into harm's way to protect us.