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Gillibrand, McCaskill grill military leaders over handling of sexual assault

The nation’s top military brass came under withering criticism Tuesday from high-profile female senators who slammed the military's handling of allegations of sexual assault.   

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., addresses a panel of military officials Tuesday during a hearing on sexual assaults within the U.S. armed services.

“Not all commanders are objective,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York told military leaders testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee.  “Not every single commander necessarily wants women on the force, not every commander believes what a sexual assault is, not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape because they merge all of these crimes together.”

Gillibrand has proposed legislation requiring sexual assault charges be handled outside the victim’s chain of command.  “You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you, that you will actually bring justice in these cases,” she said. “They are afraid to report. They think their careers will be over.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said that the military's methods for processing claims fail to take into account the root causes of sexual assault.

"This isn't about sex," she said. "This is about assaultive domination and violence. And as long as those two get mushed together, you all are not going to be as successful as you need to be at getting after the most insidious part of this, which is the predators in your ranks that are sullying the great name of our American military.”

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U.S. military leaders, including all six members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on pending legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military on Tuesday.

McCaskill has proposed a bill that would not remove commanders’ decision-making authority to address charges but would stiffen penalties and eliminate opportunities for leaders to nullify or change a conviction of sexual assault, argued forcefully that the military’s system of reporting sexual crimes is flawed.

Commanders promised Tuesday to act swiftly to eradicate the “cancer” of sexual assaults in the armed services but voiced united opposition to proposed legislation that would limit commanders’ authority to address charges of sexual assault within their chain of command.

Pledging to act “swiftly and deliberately” to address the spike in sexual assaults, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey told the panel that the military is open to many aspects of proposed legislation that would change the way its justice system deals with those accused of sexual assault and rape. But Dempsey and the heads of each branch of the military agreed that commanders must be able to make decisions about how reported crimes are handled.

Senator Claire McCaskill addresses a group of military officials at a hearing Tuesday regarding legislation to combat sexual assaults.

That stance was not enough to satisfy senators pushing for an overhaul of the military justice system – including some high-profile female lawmakers -- who grilled the heads of each military branch and charged that the current policy fails to distinguish adequately between different crimes and can discourage victims from reporting sexual assaults.

"If I believed that removing commanders from their central role of responsibility in addressing sexual assault would solve these crimes within our ranks, I would be your strongest proponent," General Raymond Odierno, the Chief of Staff of the Army, told the panel. "But removing commanders, making commanders less responsible and less accountable, will not work." 

The heads of every branch of the U.S. military were testified Tuesday before the panel of lawmakers, which has voiced mounting frustration with a nearly 30 percent increase in estimated sexual assaults in the armed services over the last three years.

“Discipline is the heart of the military culture and trust is its soul,” said panel chairman Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan. “The plague of sexual assault erodes both the heart and the soul.”

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a veteran of the Vietnam War who spent over five years as a prisoner, said that he could not give an "unqualified" recommendation to a young woman considering joining the military as a result of the scourge of sexual assaults.

A Pentagon report in May showed the estimated number of victims of sexual assault last year jumped to 26,000, up from 19,000 in 2010. Of those, just 3,374 cases were reported, indicating that many victims stay silent out of fear that they could face retribution or indifference if they speak up.  

Those statistics have also been punctuated by a string of scandals involving military leaders – including some whose job descriptions include sexual assault prevention – being charged with crimes against women.  

Last month, President Barack Obama said he has instructed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to “step up our game exponentially” to address the crimes.

“I have no tolerance for this,” he said during a May 7 press conference. ““If we find out somebody’s engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable, prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged — period.” 

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