Justice Equal to Their Sacrifices

Military leadership can't ensure justice for sexual assault victims.

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The crisis of sexual violence in our military is not new. For more than 20 years military leadership has pledged "zero tolerance" again and again. Yet the Pentagon estimates there were 26,000 cases of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact last year alone, a 37 percent increase from the previous year. Of those, a mere 3,374 were reported, and just 302 went to trial. This is unacceptable, and fundamental change is long overdue to solve an epidemic that military leadership has failed to solve on its own.

To find a common-sense solution, you just have to listen to the victims' stories. After telling his superiors that he was sexually assaulted and threatened, Air Force 1st Lt. Adam Cohen himself became the target of a criminal investigation. In April of 2013, he was told by his commander, "I don't believe you were raped." After describing the attack, he was told, "That's good acting, but I still don't believe you." He was then denied an expedited transfer request. That is just one example of what's said by commanders directly to victims brave enough to come forward.

Or listen to the military leadership. Gen. James Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps, said in a speech earlier this year, "Why wouldn't female Marines come forward? Because they don't trust us. They don't trust the command. They don't trust the leadership."

[Read Sen. Carl Levin: Trusting the Chain of Command]

It has become crystal clear that victims have no confidence that justice can be obtained within the chain of command. According to the Pentagon, half of female victims do not report because they do not believe anything will come of it. This lack of faith in the system, and systemic fear of retaliation and retribution, has a chilling effect on reporting, which leaves offenders free to attack again without consequence.

The time for pledges of zero tolerance is over. It is time to restore trust, accountability and objectivity in the military justice system so that more victims are comfortable coming forward. This is the only way to increase prosecutions and to break the vicious cycle of recidivist predators remaining in the military because their crimes go unreported.

The Military Justice Improvement Act, which has the support of a growing, bipartisan coalition of 33 senators, takes this issue head on by moving the decision-making over whether serious crimes go to trial from the chain of command to professionally trained military prosecutors, where it belongs.

[See a collection of political cartoons on women in combat.]

Critics say this will diminish good order, discipline and unit cohesion. America's closest allies like the United Kingdom, Canada and Israel have already adopted this approach without reported negative consequences to the "good order and discipline" our military leaders are trying, but failing, to uphold.

Our bipartisan legislation is a carefully crafted approach, leaving many crimes within the chain of command, including 36 crimes unique to the military, such as insubordination, in addition to crimes punishable by less than one year of confinement. Our proposal will not let commanders off the hook. In fact, commanders will still be fully responsible for setting the command climate whether or not they make this one legal decision. As Diane H. Mazur, a law professor and former Air Force officer concluded, "Everything about the proposal takes military needs into account, except for the fact that military leaders don't like change."

U.S. service members are the world's best and brightest. We ask everything of these brave men and women. They deserve a military justice system equal to their sacrifices.

Kirsten Gillibrand is a Democratic senator from New York.