Ignoring the barrage of recent allegations of sexual assault and misconduct against members of the US military, top military commanders who testified Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee refused to admit that the current system of military justice is broken. In fact, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated: “they have reservations about legislation that would remove commanders from the process of prosecuting sexual assault cases because, they say, it could ruin order and discipline in the ranks” (ABC News). According to chairman Martin Dempsey, “Reducing command responsibility could adversely affect the ability of the commander to enforce professional standards and ultimately, to accomplish the mission” (ABC News).
Yet lack of order, discipline, and professional standards all seem to be at the heart of the problem that the military is experiencing by placing commanders in control of prosecution decisions. The legislation being proposed by Congress calls for legal officers instead of commanders to oversee the process of prosecuting sexual assault cases. This proposal seems valid given the number of cases that have not been pursued or have been overturned due to the current military justice system.
Also testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday was Trina McDonald, a Navy veteran who was sexually assaulted numerous times while enlisted, but feared coming forward due to the threats she received: “I was drugged and raped. I didn’t tell anyone. I was raped multiple times … [over a period] of nine months. They made it clear to me if I came forward they were going to kill me. They threw me in the Bering Sea at one point and left me for dead. There was nowhere for me to turn, they made it clear if I did come forward, something worse was going to happen to me” (CNN). Because members of the military police themselves, there is no accountability. Trina had nowhere to turn for help. Even if she had come forward, it is far from certain that her case would have led to a conviction of the perpetrators.
In some cases, even when a conviction is handed down, it is overturned by a commander. This is what happened in the recent case involving victim Kimberly Hanks. That case grabbed national headlines when US Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin overturned the conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a pilot and inspector general of the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base in Italy who had been found guilty of sexual assault and sentenced by a jury (CBS). The assault happened after a party at Wilkerson’s house on the base. Hanks says she accepted an offer from the Wilkersons to stay in the guest bedroom after a party. She awoke to find Wilkerson in her room. He was later found guilty in a military court of aggravated sexual assault, abusive sexual contact, and three counts of conduct unbecoming an officer (Business Insider). When the conviction was overturned, Hanks was stunned. In referring to Franklin’s decision, Hanks stated, “It looks to me like he is protecting one of his own” (todaynews).
The problem of sexual assault in the military is systemic and extends to those in power. Unless the Uniform Code of Military Justice is amended, true accountability will never be achieved. It is time that the military stopped policing itself. Until victims feel safe coming forward, and all perpetrators are held accountable, change is unlikely.