WHAT OTHERS SAY: Don't let politics derail efforts to stop military sexual assaults

Monday, July 29, 2013 | 11:02 a.m. CDT

Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York deserve thanks for the heavy lifting they’ve done in advancing the cause of preventing military sexual assaults.

Forget the squabble between the two women last week which saw a group with ties to Ms. Gillibrand take out a half-page ad in the Post-Dispatch so a victim of military sexual assault could assail Ms. McCaskill as a roadblock to curbing the epidemic.

The two senators agree on the important point: It’s time to force the Pentagon to take sexual assault in the ranks seriously. They differ primarily on how such cases should be prosecuted. Ms. McCaskill, a former Jackson County prosecutor, says it is essential to keep military commanders involved in the prosecution.

Ms. Gillibrand, also an attorney, wants to move prosecution out of the military chain of command into an independent prosecutor’s office within the military.

Currently, superior officers in the chain of command can overrule a court martial in the ranks below them.

Ms. McCaskill said Thursday that she and Ms. Gillibrand have an “honest disagreement” on this point, but on the broader issue “we’ve always been on the same page.”

“She believes that it will be a magic bullet to increased reporting,” Ms. McCaskill said of Ms. Gillibrand. “I believe that is just simply not the case.”

Ms. McCaskill has filed legislation that would allow commanders to retain the power to refer cases for court-martial, and stipulates that a review will be made by civilians in the armed service branches if commanders decline to pursue cases.

Ms. McCaskill said she believes that will result in less retaliation and more prosecutions.

“We believe that the only way to hold command accountable is to make them responsible,” she said. “If you take away their authority to do this, they’re going to wash their hands of it. That’s a recipe for disaster.”

Despite high-profile cases in which commanders have overruled decisions made in the ranks, most commanders want to get rid of “crap” in their units and have been more aggressive than civilian prosecutors, Ms. McCaskill said.

“If the prosecutors have the only say, we will have fewer prosecutions, that’s what the data says,” she said. “In just the past two years, we’ve had dozens and dozens of cases in which civilian prosecutors declined to prosecute, but commanders stepped forward and made the decision to proceed.”

Commanders who deal with real-life issues in their units are likely to make better decisions than prosecutors who are isolated from the impact of their decisions, she said.

But her bill gives victims the option of reporting outside the chain of command to medical personnel, military or civilian law enforcement officers, friends, neighbors or assault prevention authorities. Ms. McCaskill added that after a report is made, commanders play a critical role in protecting a victim by separating him or her from the alleged perpetrator.

It’s quite possible that both senators are looking ahead politically. Ms. Gillibrand has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2016. Ms. McCaskill has already endorsed a run by Hillary Clinton. No doubt, politics plays a role in this dispute. But it should not derail positive reforms.

The Missouri senator’s bill has its own base of supporters, including the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“That makes me nervous,” she laughed. “It worries me when they agree with me.”

But agree they do. A group of retired female service members joined Ms. McCaskill and Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., on Wednesday to show their support for her bill. The retired women included a judge advocate, commanders and non-commissioned officers who said keeping commanders involved in prosecutions is a critical component of any reform package.

Reform is the important point. Ms. Gillibrand and Ms. McCaskill have applied consistent pressure to fix a problem that too often is swept under the rug. There were 26,000 reports of unwanted sexual contact suffered by men and women in the military last year.

What may or may not happen in 2016 is less important than fixing the problem now.

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

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