WASHINGTON — Lawmakers admonished America’s top military officers over sexual assault in the armed forces on Tuesday, but top brass warned against a plan in Congress to take the cases out of the hands of commanders.
The Senate hearing came after a wave of sexual assault scandals and new Pentagon data showing a steep rise in unwanted sexual contact, from groping to rape, deeply embarrassing the military and prompting lawmakers to try to impose change with new legislation.
“You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you that you will actually bring justice in these cases,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a D-N.Y.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he could not “overstate my disgust and disappointment” over the continued reports of sexual misconduct.
The top uniformed officers of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard sat in a line, listening silently, as did the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the top attorneys from each service.
The exceptional display underscored how the problem of sexual assault appears to have exhausted the patience of lawmakers.
“My years of experience in this area tell me they are committing crimes of domination and violence. This isn’t about sex,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a former prosecutor who handled sex crimes.
The chiefs appeared to lend their support to an April proposal by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that would curb a key power of commanders — their ability to alter verdicts in courts-martial for major crimes such as murder or sexual assault.
But they objected to Gillibrand’s proposal, which would take responsibility for prosecuting sex crimes out of the victim’s chain of command altogether and given to special prosecutors.
“The legislation … is absolutely the wrong direction to go,” said Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps.
Gen. Raymond Odierno, Army chief of staff, cautioned against any rush to create new laws overhauling the military justice system, saying, “we cannot simply legislate our way out of this problem.”
Also Tuesday, the U.S. House unanimously passed a bill written by Rep. Chellie Pingree aimed at making it easier for veterans who survive military sexual assault to get benefits.
“The Ruth Moore Act will make a big difference in the lives of tens of thousands of veterans who are survivors of sexual assault in themilitary and are struggling to get the benefits they are owed. Almost every day we hear from another veteran who is fighting for their benefits and has been repeatedly turned down because they are being held to an unreasonably high standard of proof,” Pingree said after the vote.
The bill is named for Ruth Moore, a Maine veteran who fought for 23 years for disability benefits after her sexual assault.
“This is an incredibly important day for the thousands and thousands of veterans who have been fighting for the benefits they are owed,” Moore said. “Since this bill was introduced I’ve heard from over 15,000 veterans who have been in the same situation as me. This bill will change their lives.”
Similar legislation sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester is scheduled to be taken up by the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs next week.
A study the Defense Department released in May estimated that cases of unwanted sexual contact in the military, from groping to rape, rose 37 percent in 2012, to about 26,000 cases, from 19,000 the previous year.
Lawmakers scorned top brass for failing to break down that data.
“Unwanted sexual contact is everything from somebody looking at you sideways when they shouldn’t to someone pushing you up against the wall and brutally raping you,” McCaskill said.
Outrage in recent months has been fanned by a series of cases of alleged sexual assault across the military. These include accusations leveled against military officials whose job it was to defend victims of sexual assault.
There also has been growing concern about how the military justice system itself works.
In one high-profile case, a senior U.S. military commander in Europe set aside the sexual assault conviction of an Air Force officer, throwing out his one-year prison term and dismissal from the service.
“It’s almost intolerable that we can continue on this current path by allowing the commanders to be in charge at the level they are,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Gillibrand went further, saying that there was still discrimination in the armed forces and that not every commander wanted women in the military.
“Not every commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and rape,” she said.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, told members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that military leaders must strive to make cultural changes within the service in order to fully and effectively eradicate sexual assault within the ranks, according to a press release from his office.
“We can change the rules and do all of those kinds of things, but it’s a culture that has to change … that this is unacceptable conduct,” King said.
King is a co-sponsor of The Ruth Moore Act of 2013. In a March 13 Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel hearing on military sexual assault, King underscored the importance of the Ruth Moore Act.
The BDN contributed to this report.