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Sexual Assault in the Military Subject of Congressional Hearing

July 21, 2021 by Alexa Hornbeck

The Subcommittee on Military Personnel held a hearing recently to discuss a new set of recommendations to better address sexual assault in the military.

“The toll that sexual assault and sexual harassment has taken on our military is devastating and incalculable. We know the numbers, but behind the numbers are lives destroyed and scarred,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. 

Since 2010, the U.S. Department of Defense estimates that roughly 135,000 active-duty service members have been sexually assaulted, and that 509,000 active-duty service members have experienced sexual harassment. 

Broken down by gender, this translates to one in 16 service women experiencing sexual assault, and one in four service women experiencing sexual harassment.

For service men, one in 143 experienced sexual assault, while one in 16 service men experienced sexual harassment.

Service members who do not identify as heterosexual encompass 12% of the active force but still accounted for 43% of all sexually assaulted service members in 2018.

“[These numbers] tell harrowing stories of sexual violence, careless commanders, of indifferent commanders, of a system and culture that fails to protect them,” said Speier.  

To combat these numbers, on June 21, the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military, known as the IRC, directed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, released a comprehensive, evidence-based report which provides 82 recommendations spanning four lines of effort; accountability; prevention; climate and culture; and victim care and support. 

The IRC provides a tailored approach to reforming the Uniform Code of Military Justice, with two recommendations to remove sexual assault and related crimes from the military chain of command, and to add sexual harassment as an offense.

However, to move prosecution of rape and sexual assault to dedicated, uniform special prosecutors outside the chain of command would require establishing special prosecutors within each military department, reporting directly to each military department secretary.

“The secretary of defense would set standards that govern the prosecutor framework and in our legislative proposal, we seek a fail-safe provision that would allow the secretary of defense to centralize oversight by the Office of the secretary of defense, where the military departments failed to meet any requisite milestones,” said Dr. Kathleen H. Hicks, deputy secretary of Defense at the DOD.

Still, several of the reforms recommended by the IRC would not require legislation changes, such as advertising non-judicial punishment across all services, establishing a process to initiate separation for service members against whom there are substantiated sexual harassment claims, and professionalizing career tracks for lawyers and investigators in these areas.

The IRC would also establish effective sexual assault and harassment prevention measures, such as recommending additional qualitative and narrative tools for officer performance evaluations.

“I think these changes will drive stronger cases, and prosecution rates may decline as seasoned prosecutors take a hard look at cases. But in the end, it should bring higher overall conviction rates, and increase trust in the military justice process and leadership,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala.

The recommendations of the IRC would ensure prosecutors are properly trained and focused and can ensure that survivors can petition a military judge for a protective order to keep them safe on and off their post.

“Early on, service members are taught mutual respect for their fellow soldiers, airmen, sailors, guardians, and marines. Strong leaders setting clear expectations is essential in preventing destructive behavior and sexual assault, but when sexual assault does happen, the response must be timely, thorough, and must be backed by professional investigations,” said Rogers. 

However, as Rogers said sexual assault cases can be complex, and the investigation and court-martial process can be long, complicated, and extremely difficult for victims. 

This might help explain why conviction rates are so low for these cases, as seen by data provided by the Fort Hood Commission, which looked at three years of court materials including 65 trials involving sexual assault charges, and found those cases only had a 22% conviction rate.

President Biden issued a statement at the start of July confirming acceptance of the core recommendations put forward by the IRC, including removing the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault from the chain of command, and creating highly specialized units to handle these cases and related crimes. 

“The president, secretary, and I have prioritized countering sexual assault, and sexual harassment, acting quickly and decisively, and we have a plan of action for effective implementation for needed reforms, and we will see to it that every corner of the department implements these changes in letter and in spirit,” said Hicks.

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