In Response To High Profile Case, McCaskill Drafting Legislation On Sexual Assault In Military | St. Louis Public Radio

In Response To High Profile Case, McCaskill Drafting Legislation On Sexual Assault In Military

Mar 13, 2013

As many as 19,000 service members are sexually assaulted each year. A small fraction of those cases -- around 2,500 a year --  are actually reported, and a much smaller fraction are prosecuted.

The Senate Armed Services held a hearing on sexual assaults in the military, following a high profile case in which Lt. Col. James Wilkerson was convicted by a military jury of "abusive sexual contact." After the trial and conviction, a Lieutenant General dismissed the charges, without having to provide an explanation.

Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill has said that the appearances of this case are devastating to other victims of sexual assault in the military, and that it appears as though "somebody (was) taking care of one of their guys."

In response, McCaskill has announced she is drafting legislation to change the Uniform Code of Military Justice to prohibit commanders from nullifying a guilty verdict by a jury, and would require a written justification for commuting or lessening a sentence.

Testimony From Former Service Members

Four former service members testified at the hearing on their experiences being sexually assaulted in the military. Together, they painted a grim picture of the options available for justice.

"I witnessed reports of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment swept under the rug by a handful of field grade officers," Anu Bhagwati, Executive Director and Co-Founder, Service Women's Action Network testified. "Perpetrators were promoted or transferred to other units without punishment, while victims were accused of lying or exaggerating their claims to ruin men's reputations."

The group pointed out that a "victim advocate" is problematic if the advocate has no real power in the process.

"In order to be feasible, any person in my corner would have to be of rank to help me directly," Brian Lewis, Former Petty Officer Third Class said."I just cannot imagine a case where someone of  lesser rank could effectively be in my corner while being subject to the chain of command."

Lewis also pointed out that a majority of the victims (56 percent) of sexual assault in the military are men.

Later in the day, Judge Advocates General from each of the military branches testified before the committee.

"We are not there yet, but we are moving in the right direction and we need to be persistent in moving this forward," Major General Gary Patton, Director, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office said.

The Role Of Training And Rate Of Progress

McCaskill and some of her colleagues were less accepting that things are moving forward at an acceptable pace.

"Rape is the crime of a coward. Rapists in the ranks are masquerading as real members of our military, because our military is not about cowards," McCaskill said. "Now our military does an amazing job of training. I am so proud of our military, but unfortunately I believe that this is not a crime that we’re going to train our way out of.”

"I believe the military knows we don’t have (this situation) under control," McCaskill said. "I don’t think I’m saying anything most of you don’t agree with. I think you know we need to do better.”

The hearing was the first on sexual assaults in the military in a decade. Missouri's other Senator, Republican Roy Blunt, also serves on the Armed Services Committee, but did not attend the entire hearing and did not question any of those giving testimony.

Follow Chris McDaniel on Twitter@csmcdaniel