WASHINGTON — The Joint Chiefs of Staff and top lawyers from each of the armed services appeared before a Senate committee Tuesday, hoping to stave off a plan from some in Congress to remove commanders’ authority to prosecute sexual predators within the ranks.
The top military leaders said any such move would undercut commanders, and instead pledged to do all they can to eliminate sexual assault the force.
Members of Congress have introduced several bills this session to change parts of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in an effort to better respond to a growing problem within the military.
The service chiefs acknowledged the problem, if not agreeing with everything Congress wants as a remedy.
In prepared remarks, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said that sexual assault and harassment are “like a cancer within the force — a cancer that left untreated will destroy the fabric of our force.
“It’s imperative that we take a comprehensive approach to prevent attacks, to protect our people, and where appropriate, to prosecute wrongdoing and hold people accountable.”
Still, despite calls from some senators to remove the authority to take legal action on sexual assault crimes from the accused perpetrator’s chain of command, the joint chiefs all said the authority to prosecute or not prosecute their troops goes to the heart of the commander’s ability to maintain good order and discipline.
The commanding officer “is responsible for everything that happens in his or her ship, squad or unit,” Greenert said, and the chain of command should be involved in every step of the judicial process.
Maj. Gen. Vaughn Ary, staff judge advocate to the commandant of the Marine Corps, said commanders must have the authority to punish their troops for all crimes, not just some.
“Whether it’s an enemy on the battlefield or sexual assault in the barracks, good order and discipline is just as important,” he said.
Sexual assault has long been a problem within the armed forces, but the issue has garnered more public attention in recent years, in part because of a long string of high-profile incidents involving sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexual abuse.
But Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said the military has done itself a disservice by conflating two separate problems.
The military has sexual predators who are committing crimes, and leaders have to work on creating a respectful work environment, she said.
“These are not the same issues,” McCaskill said. “As long as those two get mushed together, you all are not going to be as successful as you need to be.”
Currently, the Department of Defense reports all sexual assaults — from rapes to unwanted touching — in one report.
McCaskill and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, also noted that many victims of sexual assault are still afraid or unwilling to report the crimes.
“You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you,” Gillibrand said. “They’re afraid to report. They’re afraid their careers will be over.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called sexual assault “a long-term threat to the strength of our military,” and said he worries that it will have a negative impact on recruiting and retention.
Just recently, he said, a woman asked if he could give her daughter his “unqualified support” to join the military.
“I could not,” he said.