House panel seeks to curb military sexual assaults

By Richard Lardner

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, May 22 2013 10:27 a.m. MDT

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., questions top officials of the Air Force, Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley, and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, about how they are dealing with the controversy over sexual assaults and how the military justice system handles it, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 7, 2013.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Determined to check the growing epidemic of sexual assaults in the armed forces, a House panel is poised to approve a series of revisions to longstanding military law. They include stripping commanding officers of their unilateral authority to change or dismiss a court-martial conviction and requiring that service members found guilty of sexual offenses be dismissed or dishonorably discharged.

The House Armed Services military personnel subcommittee is scheduled to vote Wednesday on the changes, which are supported by Republicans and Democrats and reflect congressional outrage over the poor results that military leaders have achieved in their drive to change the culture within the ranks to combat sexual assault.

A Pentagon report released earlier this month estimated that up to 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year and that thousands of victims are still unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing the crimes.

The report showed that the number of sexual assaults actually reported by members of the military rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012. But a survey of personnel who were not required to reveal their identities showed the number of service members actually assaulted could be as high as 26,000, but they never reported the incidents. That figure is an increase over the 19,000 estimated assaults in 2011.

Once approved by the military personnel panel, the measures will be folded into the Armed Services Committee's broader defense policy bill for the 2014 fiscal year, which the full House will consider in the coming weeks. Separately, the Senate Armed Services Committee is taking up a series of sexual assault prevention measures next month. A final plan will eventually be produced after any differences between the House and Senate are resolved.

Congress has repeatedly challenged the military to take more aggressive steps to curb sexual assault, but the Pentagon's latest estimates on the occurrence of sexual assaults have helped convince lawmakers that swift legislative action is needed to tackle the problem. President Barack Obama has energized their efforts by declaring he wants to eliminate the "scourge" of sexual assault in the military.

"I think the leadership of the military is confused," said Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, who along with Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., wrote several of the provisions before the subcommittee. "They believe as long as they have programs where they say sexual assault is wrong that they've done enough. No. They have to support the victim, and they have to support vigorous prosecution."

Turner and Tsongas are co-chairs of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus.

The push to eliminate a commander's ability to reverse criminal convictions of service members is rooted in a case that stoked widespread outrage on Capitol Hill. Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy, was found guilty by a military panel in November 2012 of charges of abusive sexual contact and aggravated sexual assault. Wilkerson was sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the service, but Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, reviewed the case and overturned the jury's verdict of guilty.

Franklin explained in a six-page letter to the Air Force secretary that he found Wilkerson and his wife, who both denied the charges, more believable than the alleged victim.

The authority wielded by Wilkerson and other senior commanders who are responsible for establishing courts-martial leaves victims of sexual assault wary of coming forward because they fear no one will believe them, according to lawmakers advocating the change.

But that clout has been embedded in the military justice system for decades and stems from the conviction that military commanders must be directly responsible for good order and discipline in their units. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it's a mistake to strip commanders of their authority.

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