Advocates for military sexual assault issues say a Tuesday decision from one of the top lawmakers for armed forces policy essentially supports a broken status quo that allowed as many as 26,000 sexual assaults to take place within the ranks last year.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., struck down a bill on Tuesday that would take sexual assault cases out from underneath commanders' purview and give them to military prosecutors. The measure was introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and garnered 27 co-sponsors, including four Republicans.
Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says he will instead opt for a bill that would allow a review for commanders who decline to prosecute sexual assaults.
"This is supporting a status quo that is dysfunctional and is permissive of rape," says Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said in May that commanders are responsible for "life-and-death decision-making authority," adding that he "can't imagine going forward to solve this issue without commanders involved."
He has classified the issue as a crisis, but stresses that military commanders should not be removed from the process.
Tarantino, a former Army cavalry officer and Iraq veteran, says he shares these concerns but change is still necessary.
"If this were a new problem...I would support a more measured approach," he says. "But it isn't. This is a decades old problem."
A report released May 7 estimates 26,000 people were the victims of unwanted sexual conduct last year, a 34 percent increase from 2010. Some have attributed this sharp rise to a greater willingness to report these assaults.
Current military policy puts the onus on a commanding officer to decide how an instance of sexual assault should be handled within the military justice system.
Gillibrand's bill would have maintained this authority for military crimes, such as dereliction of duty or unapproved absences, but removed crimes such as murder, rape or other assaults from that chain of command.
Tarantino calls the military's argument toward "good order and discipline" a "straw man" that the military uses when it is resistant to change. And in this case, it is illogical, he says.
"I can't think of anything more disruptive to discipline than having one of your soldiers raped. Having a culture that permits that is far more disruptive," Tarantino adds.
This has created a military operating force that has no confidence in the military justice system, says Greg Jacob, policy director for the Service Women's Action Network.
"It puts commanders in a dilemma: As a commander, I'm taught that to be a good commander I need to know my troops and look out for their welfare," says Jacob, a 10-year Marine Corps infantry veteran who served in both the enlisted and officer ranks. Much of that job requires knowing intimate details about subordinate troops, including their family lives and personal problems.
"If one of them commits a crime, then I have to put all of that aside and make an impartial decision? That's not practical," he says.
Jacob points to the current military justice system as centuries old, stemming from a time when military commanders may have been the only authority within days' journey of a battle zone. Officers today enjoy the benefits of instant communication and military lawyers who operate near the front lines.
"It tells [victims] the military doesn't have their back," says Tarantino. "Sexual assault should be unthinkable in society. It should absolutely be unthinkable in the military."
"The fact that it has been going on for so long indicates there is something broken about our culture," he says.