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Looking to fight the good fight

Tuesday, March 18, 2014 - Updated: 6:46 AM

The failure of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's long crusade to change how sexual assault cases are handled in the military is a loss not just for the New York senator, but for the men and women in the military.

It's also a reminder of the sometimes maddening ways of the U.S. Senate, where a bill with not just majority support but bipartisan backing couldn't even make it to the floor for a vote. Thanks in no small measure to members of Gillibrand's own Democratic party, and thanks, once again, to the filibuster's power to turn a minority into a roadblock.

But realistically, even if the Senate had passed Gillibrand's Military Justice Improvement Act, it was doomed in the House, where Speaker John Boehner and many of his colleagues are eager to defend the status quo.

That's a status quo in which a survey found 26,000 instances of unwanted sexual contact in 2012, yet fewer than 3,400 formal complaints.

Why? One-fourth of the victims said the offender was in their chain of command. Half the women who didn't file a report said they had no confidence it would be acted upon.

Little wonder, in a system in which unit commanders, who often know the accused personally, make the call -- the main thing Gillibrand sought to change by putting these cases in the hands of trained military prosecutors.

Little wonder, too, in a system where a nominee for undersecretary of the Navy makes the audacious statement that commanders need to weigh more than just evidence in such cases.

Congress did take steps in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014 to try to remedy the problem and change the culture. It stripped commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions, and required them to immediately refer sexual assault allegations to criminal investigators. It mandated a less than honorable discharge or dismissal for anyone convicted of sexual assault. It criminalized retaliation against complainants, and provided them with a lawyer. It put in place civilian review, from a service secretary, of cases in which a commander rejects a prosecutor's recommendation for a court martial.

The changes may be having some impact. New statistics last week from the Pentagon show a 60 percent increase in the number of sexual assault reports last year, to about 5,400. Then again, that still suggests some 20,000 incidents went unreported.

Perhaps with commanders now said to be more accountable, the situation will further improve.

That's for Congress -- including the minority of senators who blocked Gillibrand's bill, and Boehner and his colleagues in the House -- to watch. And the top military officials who insist on these cases remaining in the chain of command. And President Obama, who said if things don't improve in a year, further action will be needed.

And especially Gillibrand, who we, and the men and women of the military, may look to again to fight the good fight.

-- The Times Union, Albany

     

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