Analysis & Comment

Opinion | There’s a Sexual Assault Crisis in the Military. Congress Can Stop It.

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Text by Alexander Stockton and Lucy King

Mr. Stockton is a producer with Opinion Video.
Ms. King is a producer with Opinion Video.

Thousands of service members in the United States military report being sexually assaulted every year, but only a small fraction of those cases end in a conviction.

In the Opinion Video above, three contributors — a Republican senator; a former chief prosecutor of the Air Force; and a former Army specialist who said she survived several sexual assaults while enlisted — show how conflicts of interest in the military justice system result in so many assaults going unpunished.

And they argue for the urgent need to reform military rules to fix this problem. A bill in Congress, they say, would help accomplish that goal.

Advocates for reform contend that a key reason for the impunity is the military chain of command, the rigid organizational structure that gives commanders authority over their subordinates. This arrangement also extends to the handling of sexual assault. The rules give commanders a key role in the prosecution of such cases involving service members under their authority.

It’s akin to a department director at a private corporation having a say in whether a rape case involving a person on their staff goes to trial.

How can that kind of justice be fair and impartial?

Despite promises from military leaders that they could be trusted to solve the problem themselves, in the last decade reports of assault have doubled, while the conviction rate has halved. The pending bill would remove the prosecution of sexual assault cases from the chain of command. The legislation enjoys broad, bipartisan support with more than 60 co-sponsors, including Senator Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa, a combat veteran and survivor of sexual assault, who participated in the video above.

But even though Senator Ernst’s recent decision to throw her weight behind the bill has given the effort new impetus, the legislation’s chances of passage are uncertain amid stiff resistance from some key senators. Last week, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, and the ranking member, Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, blocked the bill from a vote in the Senate — where it surely would have passed given its broad support.

Congress now has a month to pass the bill. In July, it will go to committee, where Senators Reed and Inhofe’s influence leaves the legislation’s solutions vulnerable to being watered down or minimized.

Joni Ernst (@SenJoniErnst), a Republican, is a United States senator from Iowa who served as a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard.

Don Christensen is the president of Protect Our Defenders, an organization dedicated to ending rape and sexual assault in the military.

Mei-Ling Jerez is a former Army specialist and a survivor of sexual assault.

Alexander Stockton (@AStocktonFilms) is a producer with Opinion Video.

Lucy King (@King__Lucy) is a producer with Opinion Video.

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