DOD May Only Take “Baby Steps” to Confront Military Sexual Assault

8718737046_fe13c300c0_zAmid the growing recognition of sexual assault in the military, the Department of Defense is primed to release six executive actions addressing how the military handles the issue. The proposed actions were drafted and circulated in an internal memo, but were obtained and released to the public by Politico. They are expected to be formally announced soon.

DOD officials emphasize in the memo that the draft policies are not set in stone. They also acknowledge that the planned mandates are supplements to  provisions already present in the House and Senate versions of the Defense authorization bill.

One policy calls for all military branches to adopt consistent standards of inappropriate conduct between recruiters and recruits, trainers and trainees. Another requires that reports of sexual assault be brought expressly to the attention of the first general or admiral in the chain of command to ensure a rapid response under senior-command supervision. However, the rule only applies in cases where the victim has identified her- or himself, not when accusers choose to remain anonymous.

In an effort to protect victims from contact with their attackers before trial, another policy authorizes the transfer of those charged with sexual assault to a different base. A fourth proposal expands a pilot program designed to offer legal advice to victims of sexual assault. That program currently operates in the Air Force, but will be introduced to the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps if the drafted policies are put into action.

The fifth rule mandates that lawyers advising a court-martial (known as judge advocates) serve as investigating officers in the military’s version of a grand jury (an Article 32 preliminary hearing). Lastly, assault victims would be allowed to weigh in throughout the court-martial process and even the sentencing phase.

The drafting of the policies follow a directive President Obama delivered in May to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey, prompted by an increased public awareness of the a problem that has plagued the military for decades. Last year alone, a survey conducted by the Pentagon of active-duty troops estimated that 26,000 service personnel experienced unwanted sexual contact. This figure compared to the 3,374 sexual assault reports actually filed last year, suggesting that victims, whether for fear of insufficient response or expectations of retaliation, continue to feel unsafe reporting the crimes.

Unfortunately, according to many critics, the draft proposals don’t go nearly far enough.

A major advocate for survivors of military sexual assault, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) noted in a statement on August 8, that the policies were underwhelming “baby steps”:

The problem in the military is that ‘zero tolerance’ often translates into ‘zero accountability.’ They tolerate it by often allowing the perpetrator to stay in the military. We need sweeping changes; I’d call these new rules ‘marginal improvements.’

Rep. Speier is the driving force behind re-introducing a bill to move the process for reporting sexual assault in the military completely out of the chain of command. Even with the small victories that would be granted by the policies, Rep. Speier found that they did not suggest any significant actions to keep victims safe after reporting abuse, or to curb sexual predators and their behavior.

Advocates from Protect Our Defenders, which supports survivors of sexual assault in the military, had a similar reaction: “Nothing short of an independent, professional and impartial military justice system will end this national disgrace,” said the organization’s executive director, Taryn Meeks.

Protect Our Defenders collaborates with attorney Susan Burke, nationally recognized for her representation of survivors of military sexual assault, and she, too, was disappointed by the proposals. Burke charges that progress can only be made when reporting military sexual assault is removed from the military chain of command:

Until the underlying dysfunctional structure is changed, the various regulatory reforms amount to nothing more than window dressing aimed at warding off real reform. 

Image of Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Defense, from Flickr user Chuck Hagel under license from Creative Commons 2.0

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