‘This feels exactly like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’

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Gillibrand. ()
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Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, one of the earliest champions in the Senate of the repeal of the military's "don't ask don't tell" policy, believes she has found a sequel.

"This feels exactly like 'don't ask don't tell," she said, in a phone interview last week between meetings on Capitol Hill. "The initial pushback was, 'You can't do that, that's not possible,' when we started pushing 'don't ask don't tell' repeal."

She was referring to her newest military-reform push, for legislation to change the way allegations of sexual abuse are handled by the armed services.

Since her appointment to the Senate in 2009, Gillibrand has carved out a distinguishable reputation for herself somewhere slightly to the left of Chuck Schumer, and in particular on issues related to working women and the affairs of veterans and current military personnel, most notably by lobbying early and loudly for the end to the military's ban on openly gay members.

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Gillibrand says she was inspired to do something about the treatment of sex-abuse allegations in the military after recently seeing the documentary "Invisible War," which she said was recommended to her by California Democrat Barbara Boxer, and which she says she watched with her legislative and political staff.

The conclusion she came to is that the mechanisms for reporting and prosecuting sexual abuse have to be moved outside the military chain of command for victims to get a fair hearing, or to feel comfortable coming forward in the first place. 

According to the defense department, as many as 19,000 members of the military are assaulted each year, but only a small fraction of the incidents get reported and of the ones that do, only a small percentage go to trial. Approximately one in three military women has been assaulted, according to the findings of the department in a 2011 report.

At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel earlier this month, Gillibrand questioned, and then effectively lectured, a panel of high-ranking military officers on what seemed to her to be their unpersuasive explanations of the difficulties of changing the current system, and the importance of the current rules in keeping discipline in the ranks.

"I don't know how you can say that having 19,000 sexual assaults and rapes a year is discipline and order," she said, her voice rising. "I do not understand how you can say that of the 19,000 cases, to only have approximately 2,400 even reported, because the victims tell us that they are afraid to report, because of retaliation, and the blame they will get, and the scorn they will get from their colleagues, is order and discipline."

A video of the hearing posted on YouTube by Gillibrand's office has been viewed more than 100,000 times.

That's about as far as things have gotten for the moment.

According to Gillibrand, she has received interest from Democrats, including Armed Services chairman Carl Levin, in backing legislation to require the sexual-abuse allegations no longer be handled by superior officers—something witnesses at the hearing said would encourage victims of sexual abuse to report alleged incidents and make it more likely that the accusations would be investigated and acted upon. But she has yet to find any interest from Republicans.

Senator Lindsey Graham, an Air Force reservist who served as a senior instructor for the Judge Advocate General's Corps, and who serves on Armed Services with Gillibrand, didn't respond to a request for comment for this article.

But his comments at the hearing indicated skepticism that the current system was too "buddy-buddy" (in his words) to be effective, leading the testifying officers through a set of questions to establish that in fact disciplinary decisions are made "quite a distance away from the incident in terms of command," without actually needing to have them arbitrated by an outside entity.

Still, Gillibrand thinks the reform proposal has the potential to draw widespread support, precisely because the problem is so brutally relatable.

Here's the (blunt) explanation she offered for the politics of it: "I think fundamentally everyone expects that men and women that sign up for the military sign up for very difficult tour of duty, [risking] loss of limb or loss of life. But no one signs up to be raped. I think every senator knows that. They know instinctively they wouldn't want [their] daughter to be subjected to that in the military."