'This is not good enough': Gillibrand grills generals over rise in sexual assaults
At a Senate Armed Services hearing this morning, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand expressed her frustration about a new report that estimated a rise in sexual assaults in the military, which came less than 48 hours after the head of prevention efforts for the Air Force was himself arrested for sexual assault.
"If the man in charge for the Air Force in preventing sexual assault is being alleged to have committed a sexual assault, this weekend, obviously there's a failing in training and understanding of what sexual assault is and how corrosive and damaging it is to good order and discipline and how it's undermining the credibility of the greatest military force in the world," she told Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, her voice rising almost to yelling. "This is not good enough."
The Pentagon report estimated that 26,000 people were sexually assaulted in the military, up this year from an estimated 19,000 last year, while a separate report found that reported cases rose only by a couple hundred, to just over 3,300.
Gillibrand has made reducing sexual assaults a personal crusade and has compared it to her successful efforts to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, which wasn't seen as a priority until she started pushing for such a change. She has made it a particular point to remove certain decisions about prosecuting sexual assaults from within the chain of command, where commanders retain the authority to overrule a jury's verdict.
Military officials argued at the hearing that commanding officers regularly followed the recommendations of attorneys about whether to refer cases, with only one case in the Air Force of a commander overruling an attorney's advice, and only two within the Department of Defense in the last five years.
"I do not think you should pat yourself on the back, that your commanders have acknowledged and accepted the recommendation of their lawyers in a good percentage of cases," she said. "I am highly concerned that so few victims feel they could ever receive justice that they won't report."
Gillibrand said removing the cases from the chain of command might lead more victims to report their crimes to trained prosecutors.
"Imagine you are the assaulted victim who has just gone through a trial, and because a commanding officer has said let's overturn the jury's verdict, you then have to salute the person who assaulted you," she said, pausing for a moment to compose herself. "That seems to be a lack of justice."
General Mark Welsh said that the lack of reporting has more to do with the "self-blame" that comes with the crime, and the embarrassment to family and friends and said, "I don't think it's any different in the military."
"I think it's very different in the military," Gillibrand interrupted to say. "I think you're precisely wrong about that. Everything is about the chain of command, and how you're seen by your peers and your commanders is the essence of wehether you'll have a successful career in the military."