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Military & Veterans' Issues

The Military's Plan To Reform Its Response To Sex Crimes Likely Will Take Years To Enact

Lynn Rosenthal, chair of the Pentagon’s sexual assault independent review committee, speaks to the media July 2 about proposed changes in military sexual assault and harassment investigations.
Jackie Sanders
/
Department of Defense
Lynn Rosenthal, chair of the Pentagon’s sexual assault independent review committee, speaks to the media July 2 about proposed changes in military sexual assault and harassment investigations.

President Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have endorsed major changes in how the military handles sexual assault and harassment cases. But reforms may not happen until 2023.

When troops are sexually assaulted or harassed, they often face a daunting path to justice. If they choose to report the attack, their commander decides whether the case goes to trial and what the accused service member is charged with.

But critics say that’s a problem because commanders aren’t legal experts. In many cases, they’re also colleagues or friends of the alleged perpetrator.

“Junior enlisted service members do not trust their leaders to handle these problems," said Lynn Rosenthal, the chair of an independent commission that looked at the issue. "They don’t trust that there will be accountability for sexual assault in particular."

The commission’s report recommended that sex abuse cases be removed from the chain of command and handled instead by independent prosecutors.

“By moving the technical legal decisions about whether or not to charge a suspect with a crime, and then whether or not to send that case to trial ... independent prosecutors are better able to make those decisions,” she said in an interview on PBS Newshour. “We hope to see restored trust within the military.”

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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has endorsed the commission's report. He also embraced a broader goal of changing the culture of the military and providing more resources for victims.

But that will likely mean hiring a lot of people — and developing a new framework for the thousands of sexual assault and harassment complaints the military receives each year. The Defense Department estimates 20,000 sexual assaults happen in the military annually. But only about 200 a year end in convictions.

To enact reforms, Congress and the Defense Department will have to find money and make changes to military law.

“My concern is that by the time it goes through the congressional meat grinder and the interpretation of six different military services on what the report says — and what Congress did to it — and how they implement it, there’s a lot that can go wrong,” said retired Navy Capt. Lory Manning of the Service Women’s Action Network.

“You can have a map to California and end up in Delaware.”

The reforms also have to overcome resistance from within the Pentagon. Despite Austin’s announcement, the military service chiefs have been reluctant to take sex abuse cases out of the chain of command. They argue the change would erode good order and discipline, in addition to taking an important responsibility away from leaders.

Don Christensen, president of the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, said reform efforts won’t succeed without more military buy-in.

“A lot of this is going to depend on the attitude of leadership in the military,” he said. “If I were President Biden, I'd be calling the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and saying, ‘This is important to me. I'm your Commander in Chief. Get on board. Make it clear to the force that this is going to happen and that you support it.’”

With all the work that lies ahead, the new rules likely won’t be in place until at least 2023. In the interim, victims of sexual assault and harassment still will have to work through their chain of command to file reports.

Advocates urge them to exercise caution and gauge the climate in their units before going forward.

“I think we may see some changes with commanders right away, because they know they're being watched a lot closer than they were," Manning said. "But I think we have to get the message out to those who are thinking about reporting that, hey, the old system is in place until it's not."

Under that old system, many people choose not to report because they fear retaliation or they believe that sex crimes won’t be properly investigated. But with new rules on the horizon, Manning said some victims may simply choose to wait in hopes that their cases will be taken more seriously in a few years.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.