SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Opinion

May 20, 2013

Our view: Military needs new approach in assault cases

Just when you thought the sexual assault problems in the military couldn’t get worse, two events emerged recently to prove you wrong.

The chief of the Air Force sexual assault prevention branch was arrested on suspicion of drunkenly groping a woman outside a bar near the Pentagon. The arrest came on the heels of a new report that sexual assaults in the armed forces rose 35 percent last year. A survey found that for every official report, about nine other cases go unreported. That means that last year there were about 500 assaults per week — 26,000 for the year.

The military’s response to the alarming news was predictable and lacked substance.

President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel vowed a crackdown, but their proposals don’t go far enough.

Hagel opposes a needed change to military justice. As it stands, victims must report sexual assaults to their commander who in turn moves it up his chain of command where the matter may or may not be pursued. Such a process has inherent conflicts of interest and makes victims reluctant to report assaults.

Proposals to change that system are being led mostly by female legislators, including Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. Their bill would take cases out of the chain of command and allow victims to report directly to military prosecutors, who would determine whether charges are warranted.

Hagel and other military leaders argue that it’s important to keep such decisions within the chain of command to establish order and discipline. But the military has shown that when it comes to sexual assault, they have been woefully lacking in establishing order or discipline among their ranks.

The recurring scandals and tired apologies can no longer be accepted. Congress should act to give victims a system that is fair and responsive.

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