Legislation aims to remove rape accusations from military ‘chain of command’

Laurenne Wallman Contributor
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WASHINGTON – The U.S. military already knows thousands of cases of sexual assault go unreported each year in the ranks. But more victims would come forward, California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier said, if soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines could report those crimes to someone outside their normal chain of command.

Speier announced a bill Thursday that would reassign the reporting, investigation, prosecution, victim care and oversight of sexual assaults to a new autonomous council – the Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Office, based in the Department of Defense.

“Despite 25 years of Pentagon studies, task force recommendations and congressional hearings, sexual assaults and rape in the military continue unabated,” Speier said during a press conference.

According to a Department of Defense study, 19,000 incidents of sexual assault occurred in the military in 2010 but less than 14 percent were reported.

Speier’s legislation would also create a sexual assault database within the DoD.

The bill has 41 co-sponsors already, including 40 Democrats and one Republican. Speier said she has not yet approached California Reps. Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat, and Buck McKeon, a Republican — both members of the House Armed Service Committee — about the proposed legislation.

“If this was happening in the private sector, the perpetrator would be fired and the victim would be provided services,” Speier added. “We have just the opposite happening in the military.”

A 2008 Department of Veterans Affairs report revealed that just eight percent of sexual assailants in the military were referred to military court, compared with 40 percent of similar offenders prosecuted in the civilian justice system.

Army Col. Michael Robertson is one example of what Speier says is often lacking with military justice. Robertson was convicted Wednesday on 14 charges, including assault and sexual harassment. His sentence was 90 days in a military prison and a $30,000 fine.

Yet Robertson remains eligible for full military benefits, and is not required by the court
to register as a sex offender.

Speier’s proposal would create a Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Council. The president would appoint three members: one from the Department of Justice, one with experience advocating for victims of sexual violence in the military, and one with experience prosecuting civilian sexual assault cases. The Secretary of Defense would appoint two members who have served as military judges.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was surprised at sexual assault and rape statistics, including victims who are both military women and men, Speier said. “He seems very interested in addressing the issue,” she added.

“Sexual assault has no place in the Department of Defense — and it will not be tolerated,” Cynthia O. Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman told TheDC in an email. “DoD is deeply committed to broad and focused improvements in how it prevents and responds to sexual assault.”

Among her efforts to make the public aware of what she calls a “silent epidemic”, Speier has started reading the accounts of individual rape victims each week on the House floor. She has told 11 stories so far.

Several survivors of sexual assault and rape in the military were at Thursday’s press conference, which was .

“There’s no escape when you’re in the military,” said Heath Phillips, one such survivor. “You’ve got to go by what their rules and regulations are. If you don’t do that, you get in trouble.”

For many survivors, finding support from other victims is crucial to their recovery.

“I’ve been ashamed for 20 years of what happened to me,” Phillips said. “And when I finally decided to speak out, I’ve come to realize I’m not the only one.”

Still photos for videography were provided by Protect Our Defenders.

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