Opinion Pieces

Daily News Guest Column: Bill Would Change Military For Better

Our nation’s military is the most respected in the world, yet the serious issue of sexual assault within our military ranks persists. We witnessed a troubling reminder of this problem just recently when Maj. Gen. Gary Patton – the director of the Defense Department Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office – stepped down in shame after it was revealed he had intimidated potential whistleblowers and tried to silence witnesses in a military investigation. In other words, the person supposed to lead the charge to find justice and shine light on military sexual assaults was obscuring facts and thwarting transparency.

The issue of military sexual assault was highlighted for me when I traveled to Afghanistan and the Middle East last year. In my conversations with troops stationed abroad, and with my colleagues on the trip, this troubling issue continued to come up. Most troubling is, that despite years of earnest efforts to address military sexual assault by the Pentagon, the problem seems to be getting worse.

A recent Department of Defense (DoD) study revealed the sharp uptick in the number of sexual assault complaints over the last few years – almost by 50 percent during the first 9 months of 2013. Alarmingly, most assaults go unreported. Fewer than one in six sexual assault victims come forward to tell their superiors or anyone else, according to another DoD survey. That’s likely because a quarter of the time, the perpetrators of these crimes were in the victims’ direct chain of command.

Last year, an Air Force general overturned the conviction of a pilot who had been found guilty of aggravated sexual assault without providing any reason for the reversal. According to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, military commanders are currently given “absolute power to disapprove the findings and sentence (of a military proceeding)...for any or no reason, legal or otherwise.”

America’s military has set the standard for honor and discipline, but that will quickly change if Congress does not act to confront this problem. The men and women who bravely serve our country know the risks that joining the military can bring from our nation’s enemies, but they should never have to worry about being assaulted from someone within their own ranks. It puts our military readiness at risk. I believe a solution exists, but it requires a reform of the current system of addressing sexual assault within the military.

I believe it’s time to give victims of sexual assaults within the military the ability to consult with an experienced and objective third party -- and not just a soldier’s commanding officer.

Last month, I cosponsored legislation that would remove sexual assault investigations from the chain of command. The bill would mean that evidence of a sexual assault case would be evaluated by independent, trained prosecutors who would decide if proceedings should move forward based on the facts of the case.

This bill, the Military Justice Improvement Act, has so far earned a broad range of support -- from Democratic elected officials such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to Republican Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Importantly, this bill maintains the authority of commanding officers to address other serious crimes unique to the military, such as disobeying orders and going absent Without leave.

Our military members have taken an oath to protect us, and I take my oath of office just as seriously. I believe part of that oath means doing my best to protect them. It’s simply not an option to accept the status quo. We owe it to the brave patriots who defend our freedom to show some courage of our own by standing up to the critics, putting our shoulders to the wheel and doing whatever it takes to pass this necessary reform that will ultimately make our nation safer.

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