WHAT OTHERS SAY: Sexual assault is criminal; generals don't get to decide

Friday, March 15, 2013 | 11:27 a.m. CDT

Sexual assault in the military is criminal.

That’s not just an expression. It really is criminal and it ought to be handled that way. Victims must not be further victimized by a system that fails them.

Unfortunately, a recent case in which an Air Force lieutenant general single-handedly and without explanation reversed a guilty verdict rendered by a court martial of five senior officers in a sexual assault case makes a mockery of the phrase "military justice."

Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a standout fighter pilot and former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy, was convicted of sexual assault by an all-male panel of five officers in November. He was sentenced to a year in a military prison and dismissal from service.

A few months after Col. Wilkerson began serving his sentence, the Air Force commander overseeing the case, Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin, ordered his release from prison and overturned the conviction without explanation. His action permitted Wilkerson to be reinstated in the Air Force.

Franklin’s decision was a setback for efforts by the military to reassure service members and the public that it was serious about combating assault and misconduct within its ranks.

The military has been grappling openly with the problem since the Tailhook scandals in 1991, followed by the scandals at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in 1996, the Air Force Academy in 2003 and Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio from 2009 to 2012.

How long does the military need to fix its broken justice system and begin protecting the people within its ranks?

It was just nine months ago that former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta assured the public that sexual misconduct and assault would not be tolerated in the military and that an array of weapons was being deployed to combat the problem.

Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, the judge advocate general of the Air Force, said Wednesday, “The Air Force has zero tolerance for this offense.”

“Zero” apparently is not correct, not when one can, without comment or consultation, reverse a conviction and is not obliged under military law to offer a reason.

The case has so riled Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill that she introduced a bill Wednesday to curtail such authority and to strengthen accountability under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

“The appearances of this are devastating to victims of sexual assault throughout the military,” McCaskill, a member of the Armed Services Committee and a former Jackson County prosecutor, said shortly after details of Franklin’s actions came to light.

“It looks like somebody taking care of one of their guys,” added the characteristically blunt McCaskill.

She noted in an op-ed piece that ran Tuesday that the reversal makes it “difficult to imagine a sexual assault survivor in that Air Force unit will now come forward — having received the message communicated by Franklin, with just the stroke of a pen, that jury decisions don’t matter, and that if you’re sexually assaulted in the military, you’re on your own. This violates every sense of justice and fairness that we expect in America.”

There is no difference between sexual assault in the military and in the civilian sector. There can be no distinction made between the need to protect women — and the occasional man — in civilian life and those who are working to protect us in the military.

The Pentagon estimates that as many as 19,000 service members are assaulted annually but that only a fraction of those cases — 3,191 in 2011 — get reported. An even smaller fraction goes to trial. And that was all before Franklin used his pen to further undermine the victims.

Now Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered an internal review of Franklin’s decision. The military personnel subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services on Wednesday held its first hearing in nearly a decade to discuss the issue.

But the 20-year history of inaction is hard to ignore. Steps should be taken immediately to assure that the military has a fair and impartial criminal justice system run by professional and legal experts. McCaskill’s bill to require written justifications when sentences are lessened or commuted needs to become law.

Giving the victims of military sexual assault a real day in court is imperative. Let the healing begin.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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