WASHINGTON -- U.S. senators dressed down senior military leaders Tuesday, led by female lawmakers, combat veterans and former prosecutors who insisted that sexual assault in the ranks has cost the services the trust and respect of the American people as well as the nation's men and women in uniform.
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Summoned to Capitol Hill, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the beribboned four-star chiefs of the service branches conceded in an extraordinary hearing that they had faltered in dealing with sexual assault. One said assaults were "like a cancer" in the military.
But they strongly opposed congressional efforts to strip commanders of their traditional authority to decide whether to level charges in their units.
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, especially the panel's seven female senators, grilled the chiefs about whether the military's mostly male leadership understands differences between relatively minor sexual offenses and serious crimes that deserve swift and decisive justice.
"Not every single commander necessarily wants women in the force. Not every single commander believes what a sexual assault is. Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape because they merge all of these crimes together," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
Frustration among the senators seemed to boil over as they discussed recent high-profile cases and statistics on sexual assault that underscored the challenges the Defense Department and Congress face.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Navy veteran of Vietnam, said a woman came to him the previous night and said her daughter wanted to join the military. She asked McCain if he could give his unqualified support to her.
"I could not," McCain said. "I cannot overstate my disgust and disappointment over the continued reports of sexual misconduct in our military. We've been talking about the issue for years, and talk is insufficient."
The committee is considering seven legislative proposals, including one introduced by Gillibrand that would deny commanders the authority to decide when criminal charges are filed and remove the ability of senior officers to convene courts-martial.
More than 40 senators are sponsors or co-sponsors of the proposals, several of which have overlapping provisions. A bill by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., would provide any victims with a special military lawyer who would assist them throughout the process. Another, sponsored by Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, would require any service member found guilty of rape or sexual assault receive a minimum punishment of a dismissal or a dishonorable discharge. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced a bill with provisions that require commanders to submit reports of sex-related offenses to more senior officers within 24 hours.
Dempsey and the service chiefs warned against making the dramatic changes called for in Gillibrand's legislation. Removing commanders from the military justice process, Dempsey said, would undercut their ability to preserve good order and discipline in their units.
"We cannot simply legislate our way out of this problem," said Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army's chief of staff. "Without equivocation, I believe maintaining the central role of commander in our military justice system is absolutely critical to any solution."
But Gillibrand defended her proposal, which has garnered 18 co-sponsors in two weeks. She said victims of sexual assault are reluctant to report the crimes to their commanders because they fear their allegations will be dismissed and they might face retaliation. Aggressive reforms in the military's legal code are needed to force cultural changes, she said.
"You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you," Gillibrand said. "They're afraid to report. They think their careers will be over. They fear retaliation. They fear being blamed. That is our biggest challenge right there."
Dempsey and the service chiefs told the committee they back Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's April recommendation to change the Uniform Code of Military Justice and largely strip commanding officers of the power to toss out a military verdict. That change is included in several of the Senate proposals including Gillibrand's and is likely to be adopted by the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday in its version of the annual defense policy bill.
But Gillibrand and several other senators said that wasn't nearly enough.
Several members of the committee noted that American allies including Great Britain, Israel and Australia have already have taken serious cases outside the chain of command. The U.S. military leaders said they had just begun to study the changes to see how they might apply to this country.
The committee's Democratic chairman, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, opened the hearing by saying the problem of sexual assault "is of such a scope and magnitude that it has become a stain on our military." Levin has not endorsed any of the bills.
The military leaders didn't dispute Levin's assessment.
"Sexual assault and harassment are like a cancer within the force, a cancer that left untreated will destroy the fabric of our force," Odierno said. "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."
While acknowledging the problem and accepting that legislation is inevitable, the military leaders insisted that commanders keep their authority to handle serious offenses including sexual assault cases that occur in their units.
The Air Force's top officer, Gen. Mark Welsh, said, "Commanders having the authority to hold airmen criminally accountable for misconduct ... is crucial to building combat-ready, disciplined units."
But, their voices rising, female members of the committee complained that the military's reporting process fails to recognize the seriousness of rape.
"This isn't about sex," said McCaskill, a former county prosecutor in Missouri. "This is about assaultive domination and violence. And as long as those two get mushed together, you all are not going to be as successful as you need to be at getting after the most insidious part of this, which is the predators in your ranks that are sullying the great name of our American military."
The Pentagon estimated in a recent report that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, up from an estimated 19,000 assaults in 2011, based on an anonymous survey of military personnel. While the number of sexual assaults that members of the military actually reported rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012, thousands of victims were still unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing the crimes, the report said.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., suggested that youth is partly to blame for the problem. "The young folks that are coming into each of your services are anywhere from 17 to 22 or 23," he said. "The hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur." But Chambliss also said the military and Congress need to do far more to stop sexual assaults from occurring.
Commanders and senior enlisted troops are ultimately responsible for ensuring that their units don't develop climates conducive to sexual assaults and harassment. But Dempsey said that he and other military leaders haven't kept their fingers on the pulse of their units as closely as they should over the past decade due to the heavy pace of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I think I took my eye off the ball a bit in the commands that I had," said Dempsey, who spent more than three years as a commander in Iraq.
Dempsey also said in response to a question from McCain that there are gaps in the way the services screen prospective recruits that could allow an individual with a history of sex-related crimes to join.
"There are currently, in my judgment, inadequate protections for precluding that from happening," Dempsey told McCain. "So a sex offender could, in fact, find their way into the armed forces of the United States."
The committee's hearing, which lasted nearly eight hours with testimony from three different panels of witnesses, came as a string of incidents has raised doubts about how aggressively the services are acting to change their cultures and eradicate sexual assaults.
Last week, the Pentagon said the U.S. Naval Academy is investigating allegations that three football team members sexually assaulted a female midshipman at an off-campus house more than a year ago. A lawyer for the woman says she was "ostracized" on campus after she reported it.
In recent weeks, a soldier at the U.S. Military Academy was charged with secretly photographing women, including in a bathroom. The Air Force officer who led the service's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response unit was arrested on charges of groping a woman. And the manager of the Army's sexual assault response program at Fort Campbell, Ky., was relieved of his post after his arrest in a domestic dispute with his ex-wife.