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CNO: Military justice overhaul not needed to stop sexual assault

Jun. 4, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Dana Chipman, Raymond Odierno, Martin Dempsey, Ric
Judge Advocate General of the Army Lt. Gen. Dana K. Chipman, left, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, second from left, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, second from right, and Legal Counsel to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Brig. Gen. Richard C. Gross, right, arrive June 4 to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on pending legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military. At the witness table are, from left, Judge Advocate General of the Coast Guard Rear Adm. Frederick J. Kenney Jr., Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., Staff Judge Advocate to the Marine Corps Commandant Maj. Gen. Vaughn A. Ary, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos, Chipman, Odierno, Dempsey, Gross, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, Judge Advocate General of the Navy Vice Adm. Nanette M. DeRenzi, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, and Judge Advocate General of the Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard C. Harding. (Susan Walsh / AP)
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The Chief of Naval Operations opposes major changes in the military justice system as a response to sexual assaults in the ranks, believing this would make rape and assault harder to stop.

Navy Adm. Jonathan Greenert told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that he is “outraged” that rape and assault occur, but “I cannot afford to simply be outraged. I have to, and I am committed to, working each and every day to solve this problem.”

The armed services committee is considering legislation that would strip the military chain of command from a role in decisions about the investigation of sexual assault allegations, whether to press criminal charges and the right to modify convictions or sentences.

But Greenert said this radical approach might go too far by reducing the responsibility and accountability of commanders.

“By virtue of experience, skill and training, our commanders are the best assessors of their people and are the key to sustaining the readiness of their unit.” he said. “Preventing and responding to sexual assault is not just a legal issue, it is a leadership issue. The performance, safety and climate of a unit begin and end with the commander.”

Most sexual assaults are “sailors assaulting other sailors,” Greenert said. Additionally, most victims and offenders are junior sailors, half of incidents happen on base or aboard ship, and alcohol is a factor in the majority of cases that occur outside of work spaces.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said sexual assault “is a crime that demands accountability and consequences. It betrays the very trust on which our profession is founded.”

“We can and must do more,” Dempsey told the committee.

That does not mean accepting every idea being floated, however. Military leaders are concerned that one bill pending before the committee, the Military Justice Improvement Act, would go too far by stripping the chain of command from responsibility for deciding when to bring criminal charges against an accused member and reviewing and potentially modifying a verdict or sentence.

While poor handling of rape and sexual assault cases are the primary reason for the rash of legislation, this bill, S 871, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would apply to all serious offenses not directly related to maintaining good order and discipline.

Dempsey said the military “must be open to every idea and option,” but added that “reducing command responsibility could adversely affect the ability of the commander to enforce professional standards and ultimately to accomplish the mission.”

“Of course, commanders and leaders of every rank must earn trust to engender trust in their units,” Dempsey said. “Most do. Most do not allow unit cohesion to mask an undercurrent of betrayal.”

Congress will act. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the armed services committee chairman, said every committee member “wants to drive sexual assault out of the military.”

“Even one case of sexual assault in the military is one too many,” he said. “Nobody who volunteers to serve our country should be subject to this kind of treatment by those with whom they serve.”

Levin said he understands the military’s concerns, but “we cannot successfully address this problem without a culture change throughout the military.”

“Discipline is at the heart of the military culture, and trust is its soul. The plague of sexual assault erodes both the heart and the soul,” Levin said.

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